August 31, 1997 in Nation/World

U.S. Envoy Gets Tough With Serbs Promises Any Force Necessary

Tracy Wilkinson Los Angeles Times
 

With the West dealt a serious setback in its efforts to boost Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic, the Clinton administration’s senior envoy to Bosnia confronted hard-liners here Saturday with threats of “the most serious consequences imaginable” if they fail to obey peace accords that ended the country’s war 20 months ago.

Robert Gelbard warned that “any and all force necessary” will be used to make recalcitrant Bosnian Serbs end inflammatory anti-West rhetoric and respect Plavsic’s authority.

The warnings came in the wake of Thursday’s attack on U.S. troops who were trying to take control of a Bosnian Serb police station in the northern city of Brcko. In those clashes with Bosnian Serbs loyal to former Bosnian Serb president and war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic, two U.S. military personnel were wounded.

Gelbard, emerging from a meeting with Karadzic ally Momcilo Krajisnik, the Bosnian Serb member of Bosnia’s three-man presidency, said the hard-liners are totalitarians who use terrorist tactics.

His tough talk, however, obscured another dilemma now facing Washington and its European allies. The Brcko incident was a significant setback just as Plavsic was gaining momentum in her struggle to wrest power from the Karadzic faction. U.S. troops were bloodied, nervous allies were spooked and the move to expand Plavsic’s influence hit a brick wall.

“It was a debacle for all sides,” conceded one Western diplomat.

Western officials now must plot the next move. Some NATO commanders were queasy about taking sides in Plavsic’s challenge to Karadzic and are rethinking the strategy, according to diplomatic sources.

In Brcko, U.S. troops of the NATO-led peacekeeping mission were forced to pull back when they tried to take control of the police station in order to ease the installation of pro-Plavsic police. They were met with furious mobs. Instead of assisting Plavsic, the result was a messy melee, with scenes of U.S. soldiers being taunted and stoned.

Until then, Plavsic had scored important victories. Her supporters had control of a critical television transmitter covering much of the northern part of the Republika Srpska - the Bosnian Serb half of the country - and were fully in charge of the cities of Banja Luka and nearby Prijedor. But other key cities - Doboj, Bijeljina and Brcko - remain in dispute, with police loyal to Karadzic still in place, according to Western officials who are monitoring the developments.

Washington is promoting Plavsic’s quest to isolate Karadzic, who has been indicted by an international war crimes tribunal on genocide charges, as a way to remove him from the political scene without having to mount a military operation to arrest him.

Gelbard’s appearances Saturday here in Pale, Karadzic’s headquarters, and later with Plavsic in Banja Luka are part of an emergency mission to salvage the peace process and force cooperation from the pro-Karadzic Bosnian Serb faction.

He sought to dispel the idea that the Brcko violence will slow Plavsic’s gains.

“We don’t consider this a setback,” Gelbard said in an interview. “The overall trend is quite favorable to her.”

Krajisnik, speaking to reporters after Gelbard’s departure, appeared unfazed by the Clinton envoy’s visit and said that the residents of Brcko were merely defending a police station from “unreasonable and violent” occupation by NATO troops.

Krajisnik made one conciliatory gesture, shifting the bulk of the blame from the West and onto Plavsic herself, whom he pointedly refused to address as president.

In addition to fomenting violence against NATO forces, the Pale hardliners have stonewalled other elements of the peace accords, diplomats say. Krajisnik has refused to attend meetings of the joint presidency, blocking agreements on civil aviation legislation and other issues. xxxx

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