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Bosnian Croats Already Have a De Facto State With PM-Yugoslavia, Bjt

May 24, 1993

GRUDE, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ This landscape of rugged mountains and verdant valleys lies well within the borders of Bosnia-Herzegovina. But try to find a Bosnian flag or spend Bosnian money.

In fact, this southwest corner of Bosnia is an appendage of neighboring Croatia in all but law.

″That’s the best joke I have heard all day,″ said a gas station cashier when offered Bosnian money instead of Croatian dinars.

Only a practiced eye can distinguish the difference between the red-and- white checkerboard national emblem used by Croatia and that adopted by the Croatian Defense Council, or HVO, which rules these parts.

Cars bear HVO license plates, police and soldiers wear HVO insignia and public buildings fly HVO flags.

″This is the heart of Croatia,″ said trucking operator Branko Bilic, sipping a beer in a Grude sidewalk cafe last week. ″No place in Croatia is more ethnically pure Croatian than here.″

Unusual for the ethnic patchwork that is Bosnia-Herzegovina, farm towns in this area like Grude, Siroki Brijeg, Posusje and Citluk are 99 percent Croatian.

Roman Catholic and conservative, the region has produced its share of extremists as well as moderate nationalist leaders. The dominant party is the nationalist Croatian Democratic Community, or HDZ, whose initials are plastered on roads, walls and even spelled out in stones on hillsides.

Muslims complain that Bosnian Croat soldiers from this area were the most brutal toward them during Muslim-Croat fighting two weeks ago in Mostar, the region’s major city.

When Croatian President Franjo Tudjman met in nearby Medjugorje last week to talk peace with Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, a Muslim, posters of a beaming Tudjman sprang up overnight at police stations. Crowds gathered to cheer him.

Tudjman, who arrived in a limousine, seemed far more like a head of state moving about his own country than Izetbegovic, who came protected in a U.N. armored car.

Almost all authority rests with the Croatian Defense Council, whose relations with Bosnia’s Muslim-led government 60 miles northeast in Sarajevo range from chilly to warlike.

Croatia’s Defense Council chief Mate Boban is widely suspected of seeking to create a Croatian state-within-a-state, called Herceg-Bosna, as a stepping stone to eventual union with Croatia.

Boban and Tudjman deny such intentions, saying they are satisfied with the U.N. peace plan - a scheme that would keep Bosnia as one state, but would divide it along ethnic lines into 10 provinces.

Two of the provinces Croats would dominate include much of an area they consider Herceg-Bosna.

But with Bosnian Serbs showing no sign of giving up any of the 70 percent of the republic they have occupied, and the West disinclined to intervene militarily, many Bosnian Croats doubt that Bosnia will ever be a viable state.

″This part of western Herzegovina will be in Croatia - maybe not in a month or in a year, but eventually,″ said Dado Primorac, a hotel manager in Medjugorje.

″Of course we would be happiest inside a single state with Croatia,″ said Petar Majic, the Croatian Defense Council’s deputy leader in the Grude area.

Majic said the area has close economic and cultural ties to Croatia. Even the Bosnian-Croatian border - historically the boundary between the Austro- Hungarian and Turkish empires - was always fictional for the people living here, he said.

But Majic agrees that accepting the U.N. plan is the best immediate strategy.

For many residents, the real issue is self-rule, not union with Croatia.

″What do I care if this is Croatia or Paraguay?″ said Goran Hrstic, a wounded Croatian Defense Council volunteer from Medjugorje. ″We want to have our churches, our schools, our police and our army. As long as this is respected, there is no problem with being in Bosnia-Herzegovina.″

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