In a new show of force aimed at salvaging peace in Bosnia, hundreds of U.S., Russian and other NATO troops seized four key Bosnian Serb television transmitters Wednesday and knocked hard-liners off the air.
The transmitting stations, which broadcast to more than half of Bosnian Serb territory, will be handed over to the Western-backed Bosnian Serb president, Biljana Plavsic, NATO officials said. The crackdown punishes Bosnian Serbs loyal to warcrimes suspect Radovan Karadzic, who have used the airwaves to portray NATO as a Nazi-like occupying force and to attack the U.S.-brokered Dayton, Ohio, peace accords that ended Bosnia’s 3-1/2-year war.
NATO’s “action demonstrates our determination to support those who support Dayton and to react swiftly and robustly against those who seek to obstruct the peace process,” Javier Solana, secretary-general of NATO, told reporters.
Solana was speaking in Maastricht, Netherlands, where NATO ministers are gathered for an annual assembly to discuss the future of the 35,000-strong international peace-keeping mission in Bosnia, which includes about 9,000 Americans.
In Bosnia, NATO armored vehicles blocked roads to the transmitting towers while helicopters buzzed overhead. No violence was reported in the early morning raids, which involved hundreds of heavily armed troops. Russian troops for the first time joined in a mission against their traditional allies, the Serbs.
Diplomats in Sarajevo said the final straw triggering the raids was Bosnian Serb television’s distortion of a news conference last week by Louise Arbour, the chief prosecutor of the international war crimes tribunal, which has twice indicted Karadzic on genocide charges.
Bosnian Serb television, or SRT, edited Arbour’s comments and inserted new words to portray the tribunal as an anti-Serb “political instrument,” Western officials said. Even journalists’ questions were distorted.
“We were extremely angered, and Judge Arbour was personally insulted and aggrieved,” said a U.N. official in Sarajevo.
While that anger appeared real, U.S. and some European officials have for some time been waiting for a pretext to step in against Bosnian Serb hard-liners. U.S. officials, in particular, were embarrassed over an incident last month, when U.S. troops seized a Bosnian Serb transmitter under similar circumstances, but then relinquished it to Karadzic supporters when the GIs were challenged by a rowdy mob.
U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark, the European commander of NATO, ordered Wednesday’s raids, Western sources in Sarajevo said, following a meeting Tuesday in Washington with senior U.S. officials. NATO’s military officers have at times been reluctant to appear to be siding with one faction in the Balkans, but Clark was convinced that refusing to act now would be seen as backing down once again to an egregious Bosnian Serb violation, the sources said.
The operation was launched even though SRT issued an apology Tuesday night and broadcast an unedited version of Arbour’s news conference.