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Croats in Central Bosnia Protest Sharing Power with Muslims

February 17, 1996

VITEZ, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ More than 1,000 ethnic Croats gathered in this central Bosnian city Saturday to protest plans for a joint Muslim-Croat regional government, creating a new obstacle in the Bosnian peace effort.

``We will not give up our land, even if it costs us our lives,″ said rally organizer Josip Markic, who lost his right thumb and forefinger during bitter Muslim-Croat fighting in Vitez in 1993.

``They are not only our former enemies, but our current enemies as well, constantly trying to do us harm,″ another speaker told some 1,200 people in the town’s main square.

The Croats demonstrated as Western diplomats met in Rome with leaders of Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia to end violations of the U.S.-brokered Dayton peace accord.

U.S. diplomats have said they will pressure Croatian President Franjo Tudjman to curb protests by ethnic Croats, particularly in the divided city of Mostar, where plans for sharing power with Muslims have sparked violence.

Many Croats worry that power-sharing will end the hefty profits made during the war by smuggling goods across the border to land-locked Bosnia.

``Some of the people participating in the gathering are war profiteers, who don’t want the tension to end,″ said Vitez military police chief, Maj. Marinko Palava. ``I think they are the main organizers.″

The demonstration, organized by veterans and widows, opened and closed with patriotic Croat songs. No uniformed soldiers attended, although men outnumbered women 4-to-1.

Many women wept for husbands and sons lost in war.

Vitez is divided between the two ethnic groups, who are supposed to share regional power within a larger Muslim-Croat federation. Muslims control the municipal government in Old Vitez, Croats control the main city of Vitez, and there are plans for joint government of ethnically divided central Bosnia, embracing Vitez and other cities.

Slavisa Josipovic, a leader of the local Croatian Democratic Party, told the protesters the municipal government backed their gathering. But, talking with a reporter afterwards, she declined to endorse the rally’s demands for separate regional government.

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