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Serbian Attacks Spark Threat of Deadly Force by NATO

Bosnia: With nationwide elections just eight days away, tensions are on the rise.

September 06, 1996|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Responding to a second violent encounter between NATO and Bosnian Serbs in less than a week, the American head of peacekeeping troops in Bosnia warned Thursday of "fatal consequences" if similar defiance is repeated.

In an unusually severe reprimand, Adm. Joseph Lopez said an attack Wednesday on British troops by Bosnian Serb police and an accompanying mob in the Serb-held city of Banja Luka was "dangerous and irresponsible behavior" that would not be tolerated.

The confrontation was defused only when a British sergeant fired a warning shot into the air, North Atlantic Treaty Organization officials said.

"But our soldiers are not required to fire warning shots," Lopez said in a statement. "They don't have to fire over anyone's head or into the ground. They are trained and are authorized to shoot to kill in order to defend themselves and others. . . . Yesterday, the soldiers chose to fire a warning shot. The next time, the consequences could be fatal."

With Bosnia's nationwide elections just eight days away, tensions are on the rise, and international monitors fear an upsurge in violence. Relief workers report new ethnic-based evictions, and groups of Muslims attempting to return to their Serb-captured homes have been attacked or firebombed.

The Banja Luka incident began when British soldiers discovered Bosnian Serb police hauling an antiaircraft gun system, a rocket launcher, several cannons and other unauthorized military weapons. When the troops tried to confiscate the weapons, they were surrounded by about 200 angry Bosnian Serbs who attempted to overturn NATO vehicles.

A British sergeant dispersed the crowd with a shot into the air, but the troops were a short time later boxed in again by another crowd and Bosnian Serb police, NATO spokesmen said. The dispute dragged on for several hours, ending finally when the Bosnian Serb chief of police for Banja Luka arrived on the scene and calmed the crowd.

The weapons, and an additional armored personnel carrier, were later confiscated and moved to a NATO base, spokesmen said.

The incident was the second in a week involving the Bosnian Serb police. On Aug. 29, U.S. troops detained and disarmed 65 Bosnian Serb Interior Ministry police officers--a paramilitary force loyal to former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic. The police had tear-gassed and beaten up Muslims returning to war-damaged homes in the town of Mahala.

The U.S. troops later released the men after an angry Serb mob surrounded and blockaded U.N. police monitors in the nearby city of Zvornik.

NATO and U.N. officials have repeatedly protested such actions to Bosnian Serb authorities, some of whom are running for office in the Sept. 14 vote. But the incidents have continued.

Lopez said he would demand an investigation of Wednesday's Banja Luka violence from Bosnian Serb acting President Biljana Plavsic, who Thursday led a rally of the ruling Serbian Democratic Party in Dobrinje, a Sarajevo suburb divided between Muslim-Croat and Serb sides. Plavsic said, " . . . those who accept Republika Srpska as their fatherland . . . have to be ready to sacrifice their lives for it." Republika Srpska is what Bosnian Serbs call the portion of Bosnia under their control.

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