Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Bosnian Muslim Victories May Change Face of War String of Bosnian Croat Defeats Opens Way to Embattled Enclaves

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Bosnian Muslim Victories May Change Face of War String of Bosnian Croat Defeats Opens Way to Embattled Enclaves

Article excerpt

THE end came abruptly in the dead of night, announced not by bullets or bombs but by the loudspeaker of a solitary police car cruising the streets of sleeping Vares.

"At about 2 a.m., they called on all of the Croats to leave because the Muslim forces were approaching," says Zdenko, a metal worker. "There was a kind of stampede through the streets. People were rushing toward the UN base. I thought they would stop there. But they did not. Instead, they kept going and headed for Serbian territory," he recalls.

Almost all 9,000 Croats fled the grimy steel and mining town in the cold pre-dawn dark Wednesday after the Croatian Defense Force - the Bosnian Croat militia known as the HVO - abandoned its positions before the advancing Bosnian Army.

The fortunate rode in trucks, cars, and buses. But the majority walked, dragging suitcases and bags in another of the now too-familiar scenes of the 19-month war that has driven roughly 2.2 million people from their homes.

The Vares area, an island of peace for most of the war, was the last major Bosnian Croat enclave north of Sarajevo, and its capitulation represents a development of potentially major significance. The enclave straddles the main road connecting the Bosnian Army strongholds of Zenica and Tuzla. The road leads directly south toward Sarajevo and other contested areas of central Bosnia.

From Vares, Bosnian Army units could link up with others in the towns of Kakanj and Visoko to strike at Bosnian Serb forces on the western and northern fringes of Sarajevo, about 30 miles away across forested mountains.

Far more likely, the Army will redouble its efforts to overrun remaining Bosnian Croat-held pockets in central Bosnia, such as Vitez, Kiseljak, and Prozor, and attempt to drive a corridor southward toward the embattled Muslim-controlled enclaves of Konjic and Jablanica and on to the embattled city of Mostar. String of Croat losses

Whatever the case, the capitulation of Vares continues a string of disasterous Bosnian Croat losses in central Bosnia, home to most of the republic's 670,000 Croats, since the collapse last spring of the anti-Serb Bosnian Croat-Muslim Slav alliance. Most of the losses have followed a similar pattern, with the HVO abandoning positions and retreating without a major fight.

Many Bosnian Croats claim bitterly that they are being sacrificed to the consolidation and eventual annexation by neighboring Croatia of the self-declared Bosnian Croat state of "Herceg-Bosna" in Western Herzegovina.

Herzegovinans control the HVO, are prime financiers of Croatia's ruling party, and hold key posts under Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, who is widely believed to have secretly agreed with his Serbian counterpart, Slobodan Milosevic, to divide Bosnia between them.

Thousands of Bosnian Croat refugees have been sent by way of Bosnian Serb-held territories to Western Herzegovina, a historic hotbed of fanatical Croatian nationalism from which most Muslim were driven this summer. …

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