February 10, 1996 in Nation/World

Nato Commanders Call Serbs’ Action ‘Ominous’ U.S. Soldiers Put On Heightened Alert To Guard Against Attacks

Gregory Katz Dallas Morning News

NATO commanders on Friday described as “an ominous development” the decision by Bosnian Serbs to cut all high-level contacts with NATO forces. They ordered U.S. soldiers on heightened alert to guard against possible Serb attacks.

The Bosnian Serb move to sever contacts came in retaliation for the arrest of two senior Serb officers by the Bosnian government for suspected war crimes.

Lt. Gen. Sir Michael Walker, commander of NATO ground forces in Bosnia, said the crisis had the potential to derail the implementation of the Dayton peace agreement.

The break in contacts means that NATO forces trying to keep rising tensions from spiraling out of control no longer have an open line of communication to the Bosnian Serb military leadership.

General Walker said the Serbs were now “in direct breach” of the terms of the Dayton accord, which calls for the Serbs to participate in a high-level “Joint Military Commission” that will oversee the peace process.

U.S. soldiers deployed in Bosnia were warned Friday to be on the alert for possible reprisals from Bosnian Serbs angry about the arrests, said Col. Bob Gaylord, a spokesman at Tuzla Air Base, the U.S. headquarters.

“You can’t ignore the deterioration,” he said. “You have to make sure the soldiers are aware of this situation so they can have their antenna up.”

He said that routine, low-level contacts with the Bosnian Serb military continued on Friday despite the suspension announced by the Serb military leadership. “The peace mission is still being implemented,” he said.

The Bosnian Serb decision to suspend contact with NATO was announced Thursday by Gen. Ratko Mladic, who demanded the release of the two Bosnian Serb officers.

The Bosnian Serbs earlier had broken relations with the Bosnian government, leaving NATO forces as the only liaison between the two bitter enemies.

General Mladic, who has been charged with genocide by the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal, is not recognized by NATO as a legitimate military officer. But his order to break ties with NATO was obeyed Friday by senior Bosnian Serb officers.

General Mladic is seen by NATO officials as wanting to derail the terms of the Dayton accord, in part because he will not be allowed to serve in the postwar military because of his status as an indicted war criminal.

The break between NATO and the Serbs caps a dismal week in which the U.S. suffered its first combat-related fatality and riots broke out in Mostar as Croats protested plans to reunify that divided city under a Muslim-Croat Federation.

Until the current crisis, NATO commanders had enjoyed cordial relations with many Bosnian Serb military officers. They had found the Serbs willing to live up to virtually all of terms of the accord.

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