Mobs of Bosnian Serbs, egged on by their hard-line leaders, hurled rocks and molotov cocktails at U.S. peacekeeping troops Thursday in an explosion of rage over U.S. and allied backing for Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic.
The clashes marked one of the rare times U.S. soldiers have faced hostility or violence since they were dispatched to Bosnia.
The sudden violence here and in the towns of Bijeljina and Doboj on Thursday demonstrated the high level of tension in Bosnia’s Serb Republic as Plavsic has steadily gained official and public support since breaking in early July with her defiant predecessor, Radovan Karadzic. It underlined in particular the resentment felt by Karadzic supporters at the open military, political and economic support given Plavsic by the United States and international agencies seeking to push Karadzic, who is accused of war crimes, off the political stage in favor of the more compliant Plavsic.
“The troops should get out of here,” complained an elderly Brcko man as younger men carrying ax handles and rocks faced off with U.S. soldiers nearby. “We are the ones in charge here.”
Faced with hundreds of angry Serbs, unarmed U.N. police monitors sought shelter at a nearby U.S. military base. Two dozen were seen fleeing town, wearing their blue helmets and flak jackets and driving white pickups with shattered windshields.
Commanders of NATO’s 35,000-strong peacekeeping force, meanwhile, brought in reinforcements to control the situation. Dozens of Bradley fighting vehicles and Humvees with mounted machine guns were deployed in patrols around the town. Observation helicopters stuttered overhead and checkpoints controlled roads in and out to prevent weapons from being brought in.
U.S. troops fired weapons into the air or at the ground to drive away threatening crowds early in the day. Two Bosnian Serbs said they were wounded, one by gunfire and one by a rock, and the U.S. Army reported two of its soldiers wounded by clubs or rocks.
In addition, U.S. soldiers manning a post at the entrance to a bridge spanning the Sava River fired tear gas at one point to drive back youths throwing rocks and sand and taunting the Americans stationed behind sandbag barriers. The bridge was formally opened last May by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who cited it as an example of progress in restoring peace and coexistence to postwar Bosnia.
Col. Steven Rausch, chief NATO spokesman in Sarajevo, the capital, said four canisters were fired in what was believed to be the first time U.S. peacekeeping troops have resorted to tear gas against Bosnians.
Lt. Col. Jim Cronin, a spokesman, said the two U.S. soldiers were wounded lightly, one by rocks and the other by a board wielded as a club, during the confrontation that roiled all day through the streets of Brcko. After subsiding late in the day, the violence resumed after night fell Thursday. “The night will tell which way this goes,” Rausch said.
He called on Bosnian Serb authorities to appeal for calm. But the Bosnian Serb prime minister, Gojko Klickovic, a Karadzic ally, instead urged townspeople to keep up the attacks. “You have to do a good job, like you did last night,” he said in a speech broadcast live on local radio.
Feelings have traditionally run high here because Brcko sits in a narrow Serb-controlled corridor that is strategically vital to connect the Serb Republic’s two wings, one in western Bosnia and the other in eastern Bosnia. Although Serbs control the town now, its fate has been put in the hands of an international administrator pending a final decision, due next March, on who will control it.
A 17-year-old Bosnian Serb high school student, Mladen Pajic, said he was shot in the left thigh when a U.S. soldier fired a sidearm into the pavement and the bullet ricocheted. Pajic, a nephew of Brcko Mayor Miodrag Pajic, said from his hospital bed that a number of U.S. soldiers fired sidearms and M-16 automatic rifles into the air or ground to disperse a rock-throwing crowd that surrounded their armored vehicle about 5 a.m.
“They didn’t shoot right at the people,” he added as his brother Dalibor, 18, and his weeping mother, Gordana, looked on. “I guess that’s not allowed.”
In a nearby hospital bed, Medjo Ristic, 60, said he was wounded by a U.S. soldier who hit him with a rock hurled from a fender of one of the Bradley fighting vehicles.
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