Recognition of Croatia splits Bosnian republic

December 22, 1991|By Roy Gutman | Roy Gutman,Newsday

BANJA LUKA, Yugoslavia -- West Europe's move to recognize Croatian independence touched off a chain reaction yesterday, splitting the ethnically mixed republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina and threatening a wider and more vicious conflict.

The republic, where World War I began, was divided in two after militant Bosnian Serbs announced they would split off all territories where Serbs are a majority and seek international recognition as a new republic. That move is expected to arouse strong resistance from Muslims, Croats and other nationalities, who make up 70 percent of Bosnia's population.

Banja Luka, a pleasant city rebuilt with wide boulevards after a devastating earthquake in 1969, is the likely epicenter for the future turmoil. It is in northern Bosnia and is likely to become the capital of the breakaway Serb republic, though 49 percent of its population are non-Serbs.

There is a prospect for fierce fighting.

"There could be 200,000 to 300,000 people slaughtered within a few months" in Bosnia, Haras Silajdic, Bosnian foreign minister and a Muslim, said in a recent interview. By comparison, official estimates of people killed in Croatia by the Serbian-dominated federal army or Serbian irregulars since Croatia declared its independence in June are in the 10,000 range.

The European Community provided the trigger for expanding the war by requiring each of Yugoslavia's six republics to decide by tomorrow if it wants recognition as an independent state. On Friday, Bosnia became the latest to seek recognition, following on the heels of Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia.

Serbia, claiming the mantle of the Balkan state, says it will not. Montenegro, Serbia's war ally, will decide today.

The predominantly Eastern Orthodox Serbs, 31 percent of the population, had repeatedly warned Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic that if he declared independence, they would secede and ally themselves with Serbia.

Yesterday, reacting to Mr. Izetbegovic's announcement 24 hours earlier, they carried through on the threat.

Mr. Izetbegovic, viewed by Western diplomats as the most astute politician in Yugoslavia, was in an impossible position. If // he had not chosen independence, the mostly Roman Catholic Croats, who make up 17 percent of the population, threatened to withdraw the Croat-dominated territories and join Croatia. Muslims, who make up 44 percent of the overall population and live throughout Bosnia, have avoided taking sides.

Mr. Izetbegovic, a Muslim, had battled for months to postpone international recognition of Croatia because of the violence it is expected to trigger. He won important allies, including the United States and special U.N. envoy Cyrus Vance. But Germany argued successfully to the European Community that to delay recognition rewarded aggression by Serbs.

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