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Peacekeepers hurt in Croat riot

Croat nationalists
Croat nationalists clash with peacekeeping forces outside the Mostar bank  

SARAJEVO, Bosnia -- Eighteen soldiers from the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Bosnia have been slightly injured during riots by Croat separatists, a spokesman for the troops said.

SFOR said reinforcements were sent to the southern town of Mostar after international officials tried to take over a bank controlled by the separatists.

Up to 10 members of SFOR and the civilian peace overseers body remain inside the bank in the southern Bosnian town of Grude on Friday.

The private institution is one of eight banks reported to be involved in funding the ultra-nationalist Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), which has over the last month been involved in attempts to break up the fragile Muslim-Croat federation.

Four SFOR military transport vehicles took up position around the bank in Grude while masked police stormed the building.

"Up to 10 people are still in the bank. They are not being held hostage but there's unrest outside and they do not want to go out," SFOR spokesman Captain Andrew Coxhead said.

"There has been a joint operation this morning between SFOR, IPTF (the International Police Task Force), the Ministry of Interior and financial police to establish an international provisional administration in Herzegovacka Banka," said Chris Bird, spokesman for Wolfgang Petrisch, the U.N. High Representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

As the troops carried out the operation they were stoned by Croat nationalists gathered outside. There were reports of shots being fired.

Captain Lespin Asse, spokesman for the multinational SFOR division which covers the area, said: "We did not participate in the raid, only at the scene to provide a secure environment."

"Eighteen soldiers were lightly injured. These were Italian, U.S., French, Spanish and Irish soldiers," he said.

Employees of international organisations based in Mostar were also attacked, while the local offices of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe were ransacked.

Milan Sutalo, a representative of Hercegovacka Bank, condemned the action, telling the Bosnian Croat news agency Habena that it was "absolutely illegal because this is a private bank and not a public institution.

"There was no reason for armed people coming to the bank."

Financial backbone

The Dayton Peace Accord (1995), which ended the Bosnian war of 1992-95, divided the former Yugoslav republic into two autonomous entities, a Bosnian Serb republic and a Muslim-Croat federation, each with its own president, parliament and government.

The federation has from the outset been an uneasy coalition, with hardliners on both sides of the ethnic divide arguing for a further division of the region into Croat and Muslim controlled areas.

The HDZ, under leader Ante Jelavic, has been especially strident in its calls for Croat autonomy.

Since 1995 they have maintained parallel government institutions in the Croat heartlands of southwest Bosnia, even though the Dayton Accord specifically forbade such institutions.

They have consistently refused to co-operate with the Muslim-Croat government, and have called on all Bosnian Croats to resign from federation institutions such as the army and police.

At a self-proclaimed Croat National Assembly last month the HDZ voted to enact self-rule in Croat-dominated cantons.

The Hercegovacka Bank, founded in 1997, is widely considered to be the HDZ's financial backbone.

By seizing control of it and installing a provisional administration the U.N. was hoping to cut off the HDZ's funding, thereby reducing its capacity to foment separatist unrest.

"By doing this raid the international community has hit a raw nerve, targeting this institution which allegedly is linked to illegal parallel institutions," said U.N. spokesman Douglas Coffman.

Reuters contributed to this report.



RELATED STORIES:
Police back Croat separatists
April 3, 2001
Bosnian Croat troops quit posts
March 29, 2001
Bosnia Croats delay self-rule
March 17, 2001
Bosnia Croat leader sacked
March 7, 2001
Jelavic: Crusader for Croat autonomy
March 7, 2001
Self-rule Bosnians face sanction
March 3, 2001
Bosnian hardliners back self-rule
March 3, 2001

RELATED SITES:
Government of Bosnia-Herzegovia
Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe
Office of the High Representative
SFOR

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