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Bosnia foes in accord - on criminal commerce

The procession starts early in the morning and grows all day: a line of cars with Swiss, German, Croat or no plates at all, heading into the former front line between Serb- and Croat-ruled territory.

The cars are put on sale on a bleak stretch of shell-pocked, two-lane road, along with goods ranging from fake Levi's jeans to farm animals.International peace mediators cite the makeshift markets where one-time enemies come to bargain along ethnic boundaries in Bosnia as evidence that mutual economic interests will overcome the hatreds of war. Trading is civil, and everyone benefits: the buyers, the sellers, even the authorities.

But the hundreds of cars that stretch up to five miles on weekends give this market a worrisome atmosphere. International officials say most of the autos are stolen abroad, in neighboring Croatia or Western Europe, and brought here precisely because they fall into a legal no-man's land among feuding Muslim, Croat and Serb authorities.

"The papers are easily forged by the (Bosnian Croat) mafia or the police," said Mila Maric, a city clerk in nearby Serb-controlled Trebinje. "Who's going to verify them?"

Ever since the collapse of communism across eastern Europe and a corresponding boom in cross-border crimes, large numbers of cars have been stolen in Western Europe and taken east and south, beyond the reach of better organized and less corrupt police. Many end up in Croatia.

From there, it's an easy trip into neighboring Bosnia. Current and former soldiers, refugees, cab drivers and a long list of others have the right to import cars into Bosnia without paying duty. Croats and Serbs control all the country's borders, the Muslims none.

Police and criminals work hand-in-glove to keep the cars rolling in from Croatia, said an international official. Then they enter Bosnia and go on to the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro, through territory controlled by Bosnian Serbs.

The further the cars get from their point of origin, the less chance the vehicles will be traced.

Costs are low.

Car traders pay only a small fee to Bosnian Croat police when they leave this market on the former front line. Bosnian Serb officials collect a similar fee on the other side.

There has been little progress getting police to work together across such ethnic lines. Criminals cooperated even when fighting was fiercest. Political leaders provide protection, either for the sake of ethnic unity or for a cut in the booty.

Police have made a few arrests, including a Bosnian Croat policeman caught earlier this month. The unidentified 28-year-old had about $300,000 worth of Mercedes-Benzes, Jeep Grand Cherokees and BMWs, falsified documents and equipment for changing engine registration numbers, police said.

Croatian police also recently arrested a military police commander and 11 others for allegedly stealing cars in Croatia and selling them in Stolac.

But the arrests have hardly made a dent in the stream of vehicles arriving in Stolac every day. The Croatian weekly Nacional called it Europe's "biggest fair of stolen cars."

Smuggling became a way of life during the 31/2-year Bosnian war, when illegal trade in weapons, drugs, cigarettes and alcohol bloomed.

For some, it was always a way of scraping by, a "sheer struggle for survival" in the words of a Bosnian Serb woman trying to unload a carton of Croatian cigarettes at the Stolac market.

At the top, profits are immense. Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic has accused wartime leader Radovan Karadzic and his closest aide, Momcilo Krajisnik, of amassing tens of millions of dollars through illicit trade in smuggled cigarettes, fuel, lumber and alcohol.