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More Bosnian Croat Troops Desert

March 28, 2001

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ Bosnian Croat soldiers deserted by the hundreds Wednesday, obeying calls from hard-liners trying to carve away a piece of Bosnia and set up a separate Croat state.

Many later changed their minds after the defense ministry warned that deserters will forfeit wages and benefits.

All 741 Bosnian Croat soldiers serving the joint Muslim-Croat Army in barracks in Kiseljak, some 12 miles west of Sarajevo, left the base on orders of the self-proclaimed Croat National Assembly led by the nationalist Croat Democratic Union. The Assembly was declared illegal by Bosnia’s authorities and the international community.

The 1995 Dayton peace agreement left Bosnia divided into a Serb republic and a Muslim-Croat federation. The Croat Democratic Union is trying to split Croats away from the Muslims and create a separate state in Bosnia.

Some 1,900 soldiers of the barracks in Vitez in central Bosnia deserted Tuesday, after the Assembly first demanded they quit the multiethnic army. After the Kiseljak Croats followed suit Wednesday, their commander, Brig. Gen. Mladen Mikulic, told Bosnian radio he expected others elsewhere to do the same.

In a statement Wednesday, the defense minister of the Muslim-Croat federation, Mijo Anic, said that officers and 960 soldiers returned to barracks in the northern town of Orasje after he appointed a new, pro-federation commander there.

In telling Bosnian Croats to leave the federation army _ made up of about 15,000 Muslims and 7,500 Croats _ the assembly reiterated an old order issued earlier this month by nationalist Ante Jelavic while he was still a co-president of the country.

Jelavic was fired by Bosnia’s top international official, Wolfgang Petritsch, a few days later for masterminding the plan for Croat autonomy.

To encourage soldiers to desert, assembly spokesperson Mijo Jelic said deserters would get $250 a month _ about the average salary in Bosnia and $50 dollars more than the federation army pays a common soldier.

The Bosnian Croat nationalists are bitter because they lost power in last November’s elections to a pro-western, multiethnic coalition of parties advocating a unified Bosnia.

Anic, a member of the multiethnic coalition, told media Wednesday he’s not worried about Bosnian Croat soldiers leaving the federation army. They will simply be replaced by Bosnian Croats loyal to the federation, he said.

``It means nothing to me,″ he told the Sarajevo daily Dnevni Avaz. ``It is simply as if the workers of a company leave their jobs and then the company hires other ones.″

Anic has replaced many Bosnian Croats in the defense ministry in efforts to purge the ranks of separatist hard-liners. On Wednesday, he announced the firing of three additional officers.

The NATO-led Peace Force, SFOR, warned Tuesday of any attempt to split the federation military.

``It should be fully understood that any form of a so-called parallel Bosnian Croat military structure is unacceptable,″ a NATO statement said on Tuesday.

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