Croatia to help rebuild Mostar's Ottoman Bridge

MOSTAR, Jul 30, 2000 -- (Reuters) Croatian Prime Minister Ivica Racan said on Friday his country would help rebuild the famed Ottoman-era bridge in the divided Bosnian city of Mostar - brought down by Bosnian Croat shelling seven years ago.

"I am sure that we are finally able to jointly condemn those who committed such an act," Racan said on his first official visit to the southern Bosnian town, scene of heavy fighting during the 1992-1995 war.

Racan did not say who he believed had ordered the destruction of the 16th-century bridge, whose fall became a symbol of the ethnic divide between the town's Moslems and Croats living on opposite sides of the Neretva river.

His announcement - unthinkable only a year ago - reflects the improving relations between the Balkan neighbors following the defeat of ruling nationalists in Croatian presidential and parliament elections early this year.

"We want to help all those who are building bridges of mutual understanding and respect as opposed to recent politics of conflicts, misunderstanding and distrust," Racan told a news conference.

Racan was heading a Croatian government delegation on a two-day visit to Bosnia, reinforcing the warmer links following the death of Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, who supported Bosnian Croat nationalists during the 1992-1995 war.

Racan - who also toured the Ottoman-era part of Mostar - said a concrete plan for Croatia's assistance would be negotiated with the World Bank, which is playing a key role in efforts to rebuild the bridge, destroyed in November 1993.

Despite international peace efforts, the southern town has remained divided with Moslems living on the eastern and Croats on the western side of the river. But Racan said much had already been achieved in restoring ties cut during the previous Croatian leadership.

He added that both Moslems and Croats were to blame for the ethnic conflict that erupted in Mostar in 1993, after they began the war as allies against Bosnian Serb forces rebelling against Bosnia's independence from old socialist Yugoslavia.

Racan also announced that Croatia and Mostar city authorities would join forces in cleaning the Neretva river, which also runs through Croatia, and that Croatia would assist in the reconstruction of the town's office for refugee return.

Mostar's Moslem Mayor Safet Orucevic presented Croatian Foreign Minister Tonino Picula with an original stone from the Old Bridge in a symbolic gesture to mark Croatia's new involvement with the town.

Original article