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'Unity' Rally of Bosnian Serbs Is Anything But

Balkans: Karadzic supporters and foes clash. NATO-led troops block many bused-in hard-liners.

September 09, 1997|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BANJA LUKA, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Deep divisions among the Bosnian Serbs were on display here Monday when supporters of war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic attempted to hold a "unity" rally but were practically run out of town.

Rowdy crowds taunted each other and hurled rocks and insults, but more serious violence was avoided. Both NATO-led peacekeepers and the Bosnian Serb army were deployed. One crowd waved posters of Karadzic, the banned former president of the Bosnian Serbs, while the other one burned them.

Karadzic proxy Momcilo Krajisnik, the Bosnian Serb member of Bosnia-Herzegovina's three-person presidency, waded into unfriendly territory by staging the rally here in the headquarters of archenemy Biljana Plavsic, the current Bosnian Serb president who is challenging the Karadzic hard-liners. But, judging from the reactions of his panicky bodyguards, the hostility that Krajisnik encountered was more than he expected.

The tension reflects a deepening crisis within the Bosnian Serb half of this country, one that Washington hopes to exploit to gain more cooperation from Serbs in implementing the U.S.-brokered peace accords that ended the Bosnian war 21 months ago.

And the potential violence also threatens much-delayed municipal elections scheduled for this weekend.

Hatred and conflict are standard issue in the former Yugoslav federation, but to see Bosnian Serbs turn on their fellow Serbs with such anger was stunning to many veteran observers.

Karadzic's clan of hard-liners, based in the southeastern town of Pale, last week began calling on all Serbs to attend the unity rally in Banja Luka. Plavsic, however, banned the meeting, setting the stage for Monday's showdown.

Karadzic supporters were being bused to Banja Luka, in the northwest, from all over Bosnian Serb territory, called the Republika Srpska. Pro-Plavsic police, backed by heavily armed British and Czech troops, set up barricades on roads leading to Banja Luka to block the buses. NATO reportedly turned back more than 100 buses.

Some demonstrators managed to evade the roadblocks and rallied in downtown Banja Luka, waving Karadzic posters and red-white-and-blue Bosnian Serb flags. There were only a couple of hundred people, however. And worse for Krajisnik, he and other speakers were drowned out by the whistles, catcalls and chants of Plavsic supporters.

*

Speaking through a scratchy bullhorn, Karadzic ally Gojko Klickovic, the Bosnian Serb prime minister, lauded the "historical gathering of Serbian unity." "Here we show to the world that Republika Srpska is one and indivisible!" he shouted.

Just past the bodyguards, a crowd chanted: "Thieves! Liars!" "Back to the forests with you!"

Krajisnik was the final, hurried speaker. As another crowd of Plavsic supporters surged nearby, he quickly finished his comments, warning his listeners that Plavsic would lead Republika Srpska to its doom, then dashed to the safety of the only hotel in Banja Luka.

There, in the hotel's front terrace, the crowd pelted Krajisnik's bodyguards with stones as the bodyguards held aloft metal tables and chairs as shields. Plavsic supporters trashed a car with Pale license plates. Krajisnik's men grabbed two AK-47 assault rifles, an Uzi and a shotgun from their car and took positions in the hotel, where the entourage was trapped as the crowd milled about outside.

Jacques Klein, a senior official in the civilian office that executes the peace accords, defended the decision of North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led troops to turn back buses headed for the Banja Luka rally. He also said Banja Luka police had confiscated grenades, weapons and fake ID cards from members of the crowd supporting Krajisnik.

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