British soldiers backed by armored vehicles seized the five police stations in Banja Luka on Wednesday, effectively wiping out the local power base of Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader who is wanted on war-crimes charges.
The move by the NATO-led force openly pits the 31,000 peacekeepers against the wartime leaders, based in Pale, who still command loyalty among thousands of police officers and wield near-total control of the economy in the Serbian-controlled portion of Bosnia.
NATO officials did not say whether they planned any action against the stronghold in Pale. And some expressed concern that Wednesday’s raid in Banja Luka would incite Karadzic’s supporters to violence.
Bosnia, which seceded from Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia in 1992, consists of a Bosnian Serb republic and a Muslim-Croat federation. The raid, at dawn, split the Bosnian Serb sector into areas controlled by Karadzic and by his successor, the sector’s president Biljana Plavsic.
About 350 heavily armed British troops, with American Apache helicopter gunships hovering overhead, burst unannounced into the Banja Luka police headquarters, the police academy, a special police barracks and three district police stations.
The troops swiftly herded unarmed Bosnian Serb policemen in blue uniforms from the buildings. There was no resistance.
The decision to take over police installations, confiscate truckloads of weapons from Karadzic supporters and build a police force loyal to Plavsic adds up to a far more muscular, interventionist role for the NATO-led forces.
“It’s a gamble,” said a senior U.N. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, “and a very risky one. We have cut the enclave into two factions, and we don’t yet know how all this will play out. We cannot rule out violence.”
The outside world has expressed support for Plavsic in her campaign against Karadzic, whom she accuses of rampant corruption and mismanagement, including pocketing tens of millions of dollars from the sale of cigarettes and gasoline.
Despite having formally relinquished power, Karadzic retains an iron grip on the Bosnian Serb republic. Western officials agree that as long as he wields influence behind the scenes, there is little chance for progress toward fulfilling the requirements of the Dayton peace accords, which ended the war in Bosnia in late 1995.
Under the agreement, Bosnia was to become a loose federation with joint institutions that would permit refugees to return to their homes and would bring war criminals to justice.
Instead, Bosnia remains partitioned into hostile Serbian, Croatian and Muslim enclaves. In the Serbian enclave, refugees have been almost entirely prevented from returning, and war criminals move freely.
Among the NATO-led force - including about 8,000 Americans - which is due to withdraw from Bosnia next spring, there is a growing sense of urgency to make the peace work.