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Muslim’s Drive for Fiefdom Ends in Chaos : Bosnia: Followers of warlord Fikret Abdic flee an offensive by the Sarajevo government. They seek refuge among Croatian Serb supporters.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Muslim businessman’s yearlong campaign to carve a fiefdom out of northwestern Bosnia-Herzegovina collapsed in chaos Tuesday when thousands of soldiers and civilians from the Bihac pocket fled into this Serbian-held arc of central Croatia.

At least 5,000 civilians and 1,600 armed followers of warlord Fikret Abdic have flooded across the wooded hills just west of the town of Pecigrad this week since it fell to Bosnian government forces, U.N. officials reported. An additional 800 rebel fighters surrendered last week when government forces captured Pecigrad after a fierce battle that cost hundreds of casualties on both sides.

“This would appear to represent the end of Abdic’s forces as an effective fighting unit,” U.N. Protection Force spokesman Paul Risely said from mission headquarters in Zagreb, the Croatian capital.

Aid workers with the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees were alerted by Knin authorities to prepare for the influx of defeated Abdic backers and had managed to find food and shelter for most of the first wave out of Bihac, said Mieke Bos, head of the U.N. refugee agency office here.

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“Unless they come by the tens of thousands, they could probably be accommodated by the local population,” Bos said of the Croatian Serbs who gave Abdic crucial support. “But it could become a lot bigger. God forbid they all feel they have to leave.”

The collapse of Abdic’s forces, analysts said, marked the end of Bosnia’s only civil conflict involving members of the same ethnic group--Muslims--warring with each other.

It could serve as a moral victory of sorts for the Muslim-led Sarajevo government, allowing it to refocus its attention beyond the Bihac pocket, population about 300,000.

As for Abdic, his whereabouts were unclear after the core of his fighting force was vanquished in Pecigrad and the rest of his followers fled with their families into the occupied territory of Croatia, which its occupiers have dubbed the Serbian Republic of Krajina.

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Serbian officials in this self-styled capital of Krajina had supplied Abdic and his men with the weapons and other aid they used in the Muslim-versus-Muslim battle. They were reported to be prepared to grant him asylum.

Abdic has a felony conviction for embezzlement during the Yugoslav era and remains under investigation in Austria for allegedly siphoning off money from Bosnian emigres; that ploy at one point even involved U.N. Protection Force troops in its questionable activities involving food aid.

Abdic also has offices in the Croatian port city of Rijeka. But his recent collusion with Croatian Serbs in the campaign to control Bihac has probably foreclosed any option of his taking refuge there. “I think the people in Zagreb think he is a little too close to the people down here,” the U.N. source said amid rumors that Abdic was already under protective Serbian escort and en route to Knin.

The Bihac exodus of Abdic supporters is particularly complicated for humanitarian aid workers trying to provide safety and shelter for civilians. The U.N. refugee agency, for example, has a policy of providing assistance only to unarmed civilians; a sizable portion of the Abdic exiles have fled in uniform with arms.

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Such a huge influx of Muslims into this “ethnically cleansed,” Serbian-occupied territory also can be expected to provoke problems, a concern that is spurring aid agencies to explore a means of negotiating an amnesty that would allow the refugees to return to Bihac.

Abdic, a wily trader who explored black-market links with Serbian renegades in Knin, as well as with Croatian forces, had proclaimed the U.N. safe area of Bihac in September to be the Autonomous Republic of Western Bosnia.

Desperate Muslim civilians who had been cut off from trade and protection by the Sarajevo government shifted their allegiance to Abdic when he managed to gain control over the distribution of food delivered to the isolated pocket by the U.N. Protection Force.

But as he sought to expand his territory to encompass the whole Bihac pocket, Abdic triggered fierce fighting between his backers and soldiers loyal to the Sarajevo-commanded Bosnian army.

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