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Bosnia-Herzegovina: SFOR Seizes Croat Deserters' Weapons

Troops from the NATO-led Stabilization Force in Bosnia, SFOR, have seized weapons to prevent their use by Croat deserters from the Muslim-Croat Federation army. The seizures follow attempts by some Bosnian Croats to break away from the federation.

Prague, 17 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A stand-off between nationalist Bosnian Croats and the NATO-led Stabilization Force, SFOR, is continuing this week in parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

During the weekend, SFOR peacekeepers seized weapons from several military storage sites in a bid to keep them from falling into the hands of mutinous Bosnian Croat soldiers. Peacekeepers seized tanks and artillery pieces as well as a large amount of ammunition.

SFOR spokesman Major Andrew Coxhead said the military hardware is being gathered at a central location in Bosnia so that it can be guarded by both SFOR troops and soldiers that remain loyal to Bosnia's Muslim-Croat Federation.

But despite the weekend operations, mutinous Croat solders still control several military barracks in western Bosnia. Reports also suggest that SFOR has not managed to keep all of the Bosnian army's equipment from those who have deserted and are now supporting a Croat nationalist campaign for autonomy.

The federation government in Sarajevo has asked SFOR to evict the mutineers from their barracks. But so far, the peacekeepers say such a move is not part of their mission.

There have been reports of some deserters returning to the HVO -- the Croat component of the Bosnian federation army. But Croat nationalist leaders say thousands more have torn the federation insignias from their uniforms and have pledged loyalty to the separatist campaign that is headed by hardliners in Bosnia's Croatian Democratic Union -- or HDZ.

In Mostar, a bank that was seized by SFOR troops 11 days ago remains closed. The seizure of Hercegovacka Banka was ordered by the international community's top official in Bosnia, Wolfgang Petritsch, on grounds that it was illegally channeling funds to the Croat separatist leaders.

Toby Robinson, the provisional administrator appointed by Petritsch to head the bank, has ordered all of its accounts frozen in an effort to prevent further funds from going to the Croatian self-rule campaign.

But that drastic measure also is hindering the work of the Mostar hospital and is preventing the disbursement of pensions. Analysts say that the longer the accounts are frozen at Hercegovacka Banka, the greater the likelihood that ordinary citizens will blame the West and turn toward the HDZ's campaign for self-rule.

Representatives of the bank yesterday refused an invitation for talks with Robinson about an audit of its operations. In an open letter, the bank's suspended management, staff, and shareholders said they have nothing to negotiate with Robinson or with Petritsch. They are insisting on the unconditional revocation of Petritsch's decision and also demand that the banks' accounts be immediately unblocked. The have threatened to take the case to court.

The letter also claims that the takeover is an illegal attempt by the international community to hand-over the financial institution to a foreign bank -- although the letter does not name the bank.

Petritsch's office said today that all accounts at the bank will remain frozen until the suspended managers and shareholders cooperate with Robinson's audit.

Petritsch's spokesman, Patrik Volf tells RFE/RL:

"The Hercegovacka Banka had payment operations that weren't transparent at all. The ownership of the bank wasn't clearly established, and in every other functioning market economy, it would have been clear that provisional administration has to be established to assess what the situation of the bank actually is."

The raid on the bank by SFOR and a group of international auditors triggered angry riots that injured several auditors and at least 21 peacekeepers.

At one point, the mob took an auditor from the United States as a hostage -- pressing a gun to his head and threatening him with execution. The Bosnian branch of the HDZ has been accused of organizing the riots.

The United Nations Mission in Bosnia later suspended 17 police officers for failing to prevent the violence. Some also were accused of encouraging the riots. The UN mission also has asked Petritsch to suspend the Mostar police chief Dragan Mandic and two other senior officers.

But analysts say that with no international officials in Mostar to oversee the suspension orders, there are doubts whether any will comply.

Volf says Petritsch's office will take action if the UN mission's orders are ignored.

"The first step was suspension and if that doesn't have any effect, these police officers will be stripped of their licenses. There is no police chief whatsoever who can ignore that."

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said during a visit to Sarajevo last week that the challenge from Bosnian Croat nationalists threatens to reverse the progress that has been made in Bosnia-Herzegovina since the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995.

In the meantime the U.S. embassy has withdrawn staff from areas in Bosnia that are controlled by hard-line Croat nationalists. International staff in Mostar have left their offices and moved into a nearby SFOR base.