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Wednesday, 28 March, 2001, 00:57 GMT 01:57 UK
Bosnian Croats desert en masse
S-For
S-For denies threatening to use force against Croats
A large number of ethnic Croat troops are reported to have deserted from the Bosnian army.

Correspondents say the walk-outs from barracks in Mostar and Vitez may be in support of a campaign to create a separate Croat state.

Ante Jelavic
Jelavic planned an autonomous Croat state
The desertions follow an order to disband given by an organisation representing Croat nationalists, the Croat National Assembly.

The assembly, which has been declared illegal by the international community, claims the international peacekeepers of S-For have threatened to use force against ethnic Croats.

The peacekeepers deny the allegations.

The Croat representative on Bosnia's rotating presidency, Ante Jelavic, was dismissed earlier this month for planning to establish an autonomous Croat state.

Earlier on Tuesday, two members of Bosnia's reformist multi-ethnic governing coalition were nominated to replace Mr Jelavic and fill the vacant seat left by his Muslim counterpart Alija Izetbegovic, who retired last year.

This is the first time that nationalists from Bosnia's three ethnic groups have lost control of the presidency since independence nearly 10 years ago.

Weapons secure

BBC correspondent Alex Krueger says the once powerful institution has been in limbo since Mr Jelavic's removal.

The Late President Tudjman of Croatia
The late Franjo Tudjman: Face of HDZ nationalism

Mr Jelavic is also leader of the Croat National Union (HDZ), which helped to found the Croat National Assembly.

Initial reports said that 1,900 soldiers had responded to the assembly's call in the central town of Vitez.

In the Croat heartland city of Mostar the main barracks was said to be deserted.

However, an S-For spokesman said that the peacekeepers did not anticipate any security problems.

Weapons storage sites are being kept under close supervision but have so far remained untouched, he said.

Croats marginalised

For several months the HDZ have been saying that Croats within Bosnia are losing their political rights and are threatened with extermination.

Anonymous sources within the HDZ have been speaking to local media about setting up a council of majority Croat areas, an illegal move which could force the international community to ban the HDZ from politics.

Under the 1995 Dayton accord, Bosnia is divided into two entities - the Serb Republic and the Muslim-Croat federation.

Any move to create a separate state within Bosnia would violate the accord.

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See also:

08 Feb 01 | Europe
Bosnia rejects nationalist PM
15 Jan 01 | Europe
Timeline: Bosnia-Hercegovina
21 Nov 00 | Europe
Dayton five years on
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