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Bosnian Serb Strongman Taking Revenge on Foes

Balkans: Allies of Karadzic's elected successor failed to strip him of power. Now his side is striking back.

September 08, 1997|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BIJELJINA, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Forces loyal to former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic have launched a campaign of reprisals, arrests and death threats against people who joined U.S.-backed efforts to wrest power from the indicted war crimes suspect.

The American-led efforts failed 11 days ago, leaving Karadzic's hard-liners celebrating their hold on power while his opponents go into hiding and Western diplomats struggle for a new strategy.

The setback endangers the West's long-term goal of backing moderate and cooperative Serbs--grouped around Karadzic's elected successor, Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic--over hard-liners who are blocking peace accords designed to rebuild postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina and prevent a new war.

In recent days, in three key cities in the Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb half of the country, gunmen have: staged middle-of-the-night raids on the homes of Karadzic opponents; purged pro-Plavsic police; arrested or fired dozens of anti-Karadzic Serbs.

Human rights activists and opposition politicians in the Republika Srpska report death threats.

"I feel more in danger than if I were a Muslim," said Pero Simic, an opponent of Karadzic whose attempts to create an independent television station here in Bijeljina, in northeastern Bosnia, have repeatedly run afoul of the hard-liners.

A senior American official in another disputed city, Brcko, accused Karadzic supporters of unleashing "a reign of terror."

Many of those who challenged Karadzic in the police state he controls from behind the scenes believed they were acting with the approval of American and European officials, and they expected material support. Now they express bitter disappointment and much less willingness to take the same risks again.

Locked in a power struggle with Karadzic, Plavsic controls the densely populated city of Banja Luka, her headquarters, and other smaller cities and towns in a northwestern swath of the Republika Srpska, after British NATO troops helped her seize the police apparatus of Banja Luka along with television and radio transmitters.

But her attempts to expand eastward to the cities of Doboj, Brcko and Bijeljina stalled when U.S. troops bungled an operation Aug. 28 to install pro-Plavsic police.

Officially, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization denied it was attempting to support Plavsic. But diplomats in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, saw the failed mission as an embarrassing defeat for the Americans, one that the Bosnian Serb hard-liners are now celebrating as their very own Bay of Pigs.

In Brcko, where U.S. troops came under attack from Bosnian Serbs--rallied by the Karadzic leadership when the Aug. 28 operation went awry--nine police officers who challenged Karadzic are unaccounted for, international officials say. Three more officers were seized by Karadzic police and had to be rescued by the U.S. commander of an international monitoring team, who single-handedly marched into a Bosnian Serb police station and freed the men.

Many of the reprisals, residents say, are being carried out by special paramilitary police from the Karadzic stronghold of Pale, outside Sarajevo, who were dispatched to Bijeljina, Brcko and Doboj despite NATO-imposed restrictions on their movements.

In Bijeljina, the Serbs' second-largest city and gateway to Serbia, 24 people who belonged to Karadzic's ruling Serbian Democratic Party, or SDS, but who switched allegiance to Plavsic have been fired since Aug. 28, including the high school principal, the postmaster and the directors of several companies.

Two opposition political parties say members were beaten up when they tried to hang campaign posters in advance of the coming weekend's municipal elections.

*

"Every night, I sleep in a different place," said Svetozar Mihajlovic, removed by the SDS from his position as City Council president after he announced his support for Plavsic. "We were well on our way to achieving a certain amount of democracy here in Bijeljina, but the indecisive behavior of the international community slowed everything down."

Not only did the NATO takeover of the Bijeljina police station fail miserably last month, but American troops also surrendered a television transmitter to Karadzic's forces.

Branko Todorovic, president of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in the Republika Srpska, lives in Bijeljina. Karadzic police have been menacing his home and office. Helsinki committee staffers have been told they are on a death list; one received oral threats from a pro-Pale politician in front of several international officials.

Between 10 and 15 Bijeljina police officers have reportedly been purged from the department, while the home of Predrag Jerusic, a senior police official, was raided by well-armed men in the middle of the night last week and his family terrorized, human rights officials say.

In Doboj, five men who participated in the takeover of a television transmitter with the goal of breaking the Karadzic propaganda stranglehold were arrested and charged with terrorism and public order crimes. One, Milovan Stankovic, was the publisher of Doboj's only opposition newspaper, Alternativa, which receives U.S. financing.

The Alternativa offices were firebombed, as were the headquarters of the opposition Socialist Party, Stankovic's home and the home of another Alternativa editor. One of the other men arrested, Dragan Lukic, ended up in the hospital after police denied him the insulin he needs for diabetes.

"I don't know now whether to stay in Doboj or leave," Lukic, 23, said from his hospital bed. "The threats come from every direction."

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