Published On: Uto, svi 25th, 2021

The New York Times Archives: Foreign Islamic Militants Strain Bosnian Alliance (Published 1995)

What bothers Zeljko in the sweeping view from his bedroom window is not the gargantuan steel plant, built by Tito, but the yellow house beside the factory, where a group of Islamic militants have taken up residence.

The now dilapidated steel mill is a monument to the former Communist ruler’s vision of placing strategic industries in the mountainous heartland of Bosnia, where he fought a successful guerrilla war against the Nazis in World War II. The yellow house is a monument to the spiral of violence unleashed by the Bosnian war.

“Either the mujahedeen in that house leave, or we will have to leave,” said Zeljko, a Croat who asked that only his first name be used because he fears for his security. “On Dec. 23, we were told to turn off the lights on our Christmas trees and they have been harassing us daily ever since.”

The mujahedeen, self-styled holy warriors from the Islamic world who have come to defend Bosnian Muslims, are not talking. An attempt to visit their stronghold was met by several young men who waved a car away as another rammed home the message by taking aim with a Kalashnikov.

Spahija Kozlic, a spokesman for the Zenica-based III Corps of the Muslim-led Bosnian Army, said: “These people came here to help us. They are doing their job in a normal way. They are an integrated part of our corps.”

The Islamic militants are believed by British United Nations troops in the area to number about 500 and to come mainly from Iran, Egypt, Sudan and the Persian Gulf. The problems arising from their presence are increasingly severe, threatening an already flimsy Muslim-Croat federation and causing strains within the Muslim-led Bosnian Government.

This month, the Muslim vice president of Bosnia, Ejup Ganic, had to come to Zenica in an attempt to calm a Croatian outcry at the presence of the mujahedeen, who are based in the midst of a Zenica suburb called Podbrezje that is overwhelmingly inhabited by Croats.

Moreover, five members of the Bosnian presidency this month spoke out against “ideological exploitation and negative manipulation of religion in some Bosnian Army units” and said that only a “secular and multinational army” could effectively defend the Bosnian cause.

While the Islamic militants in Zenica were not the main target of this outcry, their presence in Bosnia was one factor behind the complaint.

Beyond these tensions, the Islamic militants, whose unit is known as the Mujahedeen Brigade, pose a broader image problem for the Bosnian Government. Even under sustained assault and persecution by the Serbs, who tend to refer to all Bosnian Muslims as “Turks” or “fundamentalists,” most Bosnian Muslims have remained moderate or secular.

Local residents say that mosques are fuller than ever and more Bosnian Muslims are fasting for the holy month of Ramadan this year than in the past. But their awakening to religion is probably no greater than that of Roman Catholics or Orthodox Christians now freed from Communism in Central and Eastern Europe. Islam in the Balkans has remained a generally tolerant faith.

But religious faith is one thing, politics another. There is no question that President Alija Izetbegovic has turned increasingly to the Islamic world for financial and military support as he has seen that a Western military intervention to save Bosnia was not forthcoming. Government ministers, including Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic, have been regular visitors to Iran during the last year.

It is unclear if any of the aid received by the Bosnian Government from Islamic governments has been specifically earmarked for the maintenance of the foreign volunteer forces here. Capt. David Chown, a British liaison officer based in the nearby town of Vitez who has regular dealings with the III Corps, said, “What I am always told is that the army has to tolerate the mujahedeen because of the money coming in from fundamentalist countries.”

It appears, however, that Mr. Izetbegovic is fast reaching the limits of this balancing act between his own commitment to a multiethnic and religiously tolerant Bosnia and the demands placed on him by countries like Iran in exchange for financial and military support. Certainly, in Zenica tensions are near the breaking point.

Outside the houses of the Croats in the suburb of Podbrezje, United Nations troops from Turkey are on constant patrol, trying to insure that no violent incidents erupt.

The Turkish soldiers, eager to demonstrate their neutrality, have repaired a Catholic church on a hill above the settlement that was partly destroyed by Bosnian Muslims during the 1993 fighting between Bosnian Croats and Muslims.

“Our main problem is with the fundamentalists, who do not like us because Turkey is a secular state,” said Levent Rudar, a spokesman for the Turkish battalion. “But for now things are calm.”

Zeljko, the Croat whose house looks down on the mujahedeen base, said the harassment of the roughly 800 Croats in the area by the foreign Muslim militants was insidious rather than violent.

“They come with local Muslim extremists to our houses and inquire if the house is for sale,” he said. “They ask whether we will be leaving soon. They shout insults at us in the street. But we are determined to stay.”

A lot is at stake with this small and embattled Croatian community because the Muslim-Croat federation survives in part on the basis of an unspoken balance of terror.

The Muslims in the southern Bosnian town of Mostar, for example, are vulnerable and virtually surrounded by Croats; but the Croats in central Bosnian towns like Zenica and Vitez are vulnerable and surrounded by Muslims. This balance would be broken if the heavily armed Islamic militants, who can be seen driving around Zenica in unmarked cars and trucks, force the Croats out of Podbrezje.

“If Zenica is to be entirely Muslim, then Mostar will be entirely Croatian,” Zeljko said.

The Defense Minister of the Muslim-Croatian federation, Jadranko Prlic, who is a Croat, added:

“We can no longer accept these mujahedeen terrorizing a Croatian neighborhood. Progress on the federation depends on a resolution of this problem.”

The Croatian complaints were put to Mr. Ganic, the Muslim vice president, when he came to Zenica at the beginning of this month. The Croatian community believes it has a pledge to have the Islamic militants moved to another location.

But nothing has happened and Mr. Kozlic, the army spokesman, said:

“We do not know if they will move. Mr. Ganic heard the Croatian side of the story. But we have had no problems with the mujahedeen.”

 By Roger Cohen l 18.2. 1995 l NYT
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