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Warfare, Genocide Reemerge In Face of Bosnian Peace Plan

By Peter Maass
Special to The Washington Post

BUDAPEST, Hungary

An international proposal to end the three-sided Bosnian war has sparked a new round of "ethnic cleansing'' in which Serb and Croat nationalist forces are trying to solidify their control over areas of the republic populated by Slavic Muslims, diplomats and relief officials say.

The peace plan would divide Bosnia into 10 quasi-autonomous provinces that likely would be dominated by one or the other of the three warring factions. Peace mediators Cyrus R. Vance and David Owen unveiled the province proposal a month ago as part of a complex initiative to end the 10-month-old war, but it has been the sticking point ever since; Bosnia's Muslim-led government argues that it rewards Serb aggression by giving them too much territory, and the Serbs argue that it unfairly requires them to surrender half of the 70 percent of Bosnia they now control.

Yet even though any Bosnian peace settlement is apparently a long way from enactment -- the Vance-Owen proposal has been accepted in full only by the Croat faction -- it has prompted a new wave of ethnic cleansing motivated by two different political strategies.

On the one hand, Muslim civilians are being "cleansed'' -- forcibly expelled from their homes and lands -- in areas designated by the Vance-Owen map for inclusion in provinces that ultimately would fall under Serb or Croat control, according to diplomatic sources in the region. On the other hand, Serb militia commanders in provinces designated for ultimate Muslim control are reportedly attacking and expelling Muslim families in the hope that if most of them are driven away the land cannot be consigned to the Muslims.

This violent jockeying for position appears to undercut a key tenet of the Vance-Owen plan -- that all of the more than 1.6 million refugees created by the war, most of them Muslims, must be allowed to return home, no matter what faction controls the province in which it lies. By revving up their expulsion campaigns, local nationalist warlords seem to be saying that they have no intention of welcoming exiles back home or easily handing over power won on the battlefield.

The focus of one of the new expulsion campaigns is along the Drina River, which marks Bosnia's eastern border with Serbia, the Bosnian Serbs' patron and sole source of supply. Under the peace plan, the towns of Cerska, Kamenica and Zvornik would be part of a predominantly Muslim province, but over the past few days about 5,000 Muslims have streamed out of those Serb-besieged towns, driven to flight by relentless artillery attacks and starvation tactics, relief officials say. Elsewhere in eastern Bosnia, the officials say, security forces in Serb-controlled towns are intensifying local terror campaigns designed to force non-Serbs to flee in panic. "The (Vance-Owen) plan appears to have instigated this,'' said a Western diplomat, speaking by phone from neighboring Croatia.

The Drina-area refugees are slipping through the shifting front lines to the Muslim-held city of Tuzla, and U.N. relief officials fear that thousands more may soon be on their way if the Serbs continue the shelling and expulsions or block U.N. convoys trying to bring relief supplies to the region.

In a letter to U.N. humanitarian aid officials, Bosnian Serb military chief Manojlo Milanovic declared that the United Nations should wait until "happier times'' before delivering food to hungry Muslim civilians along the Drina. Milanovic also claimed that Muslims killed or wounded while fleeing the area were, in fact, killed by Muslim combatants. "They do not even care about their people,'' Milanovic said. "They killed them and left them along the roads, just to blame the Serbs in front of world public opinion.'' Serb militia commanders and nationalist politicians have reiterated this charge throughout the war, but diplomats and aid officials say there is little basis for it in fact.

Meanwhile, in the southernmost corner of Bosnia, Serb militia forces are said to have forced nearly 5,000 Muslims from the town of Trebinje, which has been under Serb control since the war began and would become part of a Serb-dominated province under the Vance-Owen plan. Diplomatic sources say they believe the week-old expulsion campaign was launched because Serbs there feel they now can do as they please.

"Paramilitary thugs went on a rampage against the Muslim community and created ... a mass terror,'' said a relief official by phone from Serbia. "It sparked the exodus.''

Relief officials report that the Trebinje mosque, which had been unmolested during nearly 10 months of local Serb rule, was burned down two weeks ago. Muslim leaders were arrested, and armed Serbs went from house to house demanding that Muslims sign over their property and leave. Most of the Trebinje Muslims fled to neighboring Montenegro, the subordinate partner in the new two-republic Yugoslav state dominated by Serbia.

The Bosnian Croats, too, have indulged in new operations to secure local control, according to diplomatic sources and relief officials. For the past two weeks, they say, heavy fighting has raged between Croat and Muslim forces around the central Bosnian town of Gjorni Vakuf, which had been under joint Croat-Muslim control.

Under the peace plan, Gornji Vakuf would become part of a predominantly Croat province, and the fighting was apparently sparked when local Croats demanded that the Muslims disarm and submit to their control. U.N. relief officials in the region said they are aware of no instances in which Muslim forces have attempted to expel Croats or Serbs from the few cities and towns they still control.