September 8, 1997 in Nation/World

Serb Hard-Liners Hit Back With Raids, Purges U.S.-Backed Efforts To Oust Karadzic, Other War-Crimes Suspects Have Failed

Tracy Wilkinson Los Angeles Times
 

Forces loyal to former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic have launched a campaign of reprisals, arrests and death threats against people who joined U.S.-backed efforts to oust the indicted war-crimes suspect.

The American-led efforts failed 10 days ago, leaving Karadzic’s hard-liners celebrating their hold on power while his opponents go into hiding and Western diplomats struggle for a new strategy.

The setback endangers the West’s long-term goal of backing moderate and cooperative Serbs - grouped around Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic - over hard-liners who are blocking peace accords designed to rebuild post-war Bosnia and prevent a new war.

In recent days, in three key cities in Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb half of the country, gunmen have: staged middle-of-the-night raids on the homes of Karadzic opponents; purged pro-Plavsic police; arrested or fired dozens of anti-Karadzic Serbs.

Human rights activists and opposition politicians in Republika Srpska report death threats.

“I feel more in danger than if I were a Muslim,” said Pero Simic, an opponent of Karadzic whose attempts to create an independent television station here in Bijeljina, in northeastern Bosnia, have repeatedly run afoul of the hard-liners.

A senior American official in another disputed city, Brcko, accused Karadzic supporters of unleashing “a reign of terror.”

Many of those who challenged Karadzic in the police state that he controls from behind the scenes believed they were acting with the approval of American and European officials, and they expected material support. Now they express bitter disappointment and much less willingness to take comparable risks again.

Locked in a power struggle with Karadzic, Plavsic holds the densely populated city of Banja Luka, her headquarters. She gained control of the city, along with other smaller cities and towns in a northwestern swath of Republika Srpska, after British NATO troops helped her seize the police apparatus of Banja Luka and television and radio transmitters.

But her attempts to expand eastward to the cities of Doboj, Brcko and Bijeljina stalled when U.S. troops bungled an operation Aug. 28 to install pro-Plavsic police.

Officially, NATO denied it was attempting to support Plavsic. But diplomats in Sarajevo saw the failed mission as an embarrassing defeat for the Americans, one that the Bosnian Serb hard-liners are now celebrating as their very own Serbian Bay of Pigs.

In Brcko, where U.S. troops came under attack from Bosnian Serbs - rallied by the Karadzic leadership when the Aug. 28 operation went awry - nine police who challenged Karadzic are unaccounted for, international officials said. Three more officers were seized by Karadzic police and had to be rescued by the U.S. commander of an international monitoring team, who single-handedly marched into a Bosnian Serb police station and freed the men.

Many of the reprisals, residents say, are being carried out by special paramilitary police. The troops come from the Karadzic stronghold of Pale, in southern Bosnia, and were dispatched to Bijeljina, Brcko and Doboj - despite NATO-imposed restrictions on their movements.

Thugs and paramilitary henchmen from neighboring Serbia also have been spotted.

Among them, reports count about 200 supporters of Vojislav Seselj, a Serbian ultra-nationalist who promoted brutal and violent expulsions of Muslims, Croats and other non-Serbs from this region at the start of the war.

“They don’t know which way the wind will blow, but they do know the retribution is swift and brutal. They are afraid to stick their necks in the noose.”

In Bijeljina, the Serbs’ second largest city and gateway to Serbia, 24 people who switched allegiance from Karadzic’s ruling Serbian Democratic Party, or SDS, to Plavsic were fired in the last 10 days. Those fired included the high school principal, the postmaster and the directors of several companies.

Two opposition political parties said members were beaten up when they tried to hang campaign posters before this weekend’s municipal elections.

“Every night, I sleep in a different place,” said Svetozar Mihajlovic, removed by the SDS from his position as city council president after he announced his support for Plavsic. “We were well on our way to achieving a certain amount of democracy here in Bijeljina, but the indecisive behavior of the international community slowed everything down.”

Not only did the NATO takeover of the Bijeljina police station fail miserably on Aug. 28, but American troops also surrendered a television transmitter to Karadzic’s forces.

Branko Todorovic, president of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Republika Srpska, lives in Bijeljina. Karadzic police have been menacing his home and office. Helsinki committee staffers have been told they are on a death list; one received oral threats from a pro-Pale politician, emerging from a televised election debate and in front of several international officials.

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