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NATO Curbs Hardliners by 'Stirring Up' Bosnian Politics

By Tracy Wilkinson
Los Angeles Times
SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina

For most of the the 20 months since the war here ended, Bosnia-watchers have grown accustomed to being told what Western peacekeepers could not do.

The NATO-led guardians of peace could not escort refugees returning home. They could not pursue war criminals. They could not do anything about the paramilitary police who took charge of those two issues by blocking refugee returns and harboring alleged war criminals.

Some of those taboos are now being chiseled away. Most dramatically, NATO this week ousted an entire police hierarchy in Banja Luka, the Bosnian Serbs' largest city, and replaced it with one considered more cooperative.

The confrontation with hard-liners led by the pariah former president Radovan Karadzic, in support of Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic, whom the West has decided it can support, marked a significant escalation in NATO involvement - long overdue in the opinion of some, dangerously exploratory according to others.

"They have crossed a line," an international official with extensive experience in the Balkans said Thursday. "And so far it's without casualties. But they cannot just leave it here. They will have to keep up the momentum."

The United States and its European allies have embarked on a new and risky strategy of deliberately "stirring things up," in the words of one senior diplomat, to sow confusion in the ideologically riven Bosnian Serb half of this country. The goal, according to this view, is for the forces favored by the West to emerge victorious while those loyal to Karadzic become isolated.

All factions in post-war Bosnia - Muslims and Croats who control one half of the country and the Serbs who run the other half - have routinely violated or resisted elements of the December 1995 accords that ended the war. But the Serbs, who oppose reuniting Bosnia into a single multiethnic country, are widely seen as the most obstructionist.

And most of the die-hard resistance is traced to Karadzic, who the West says should be removed from the political arena and be forced to face genocide indictments issued against him by an international war-crimes court.

The strategy of stirring the Bosnian Serb pot is a risky effort that could backfire at any moment.

Following the Banja Luka operation, a new spate of staunchly anti-West rhetoric was being aired on the Bosnian Serbs' state-controlled radio and television network, SRT. Plavsic was accused of collaborating with foreign occupation forces likened to the Nazis. On Thursday night, television showed black-and-white images of Nazis spliced with images of NATO soldiers.

The inflammatory language on SRT came even as Momcilo Krajisnik, the Bosnian Serb member of Bosnia's three-man presidency, was promising U.S. special envoy Robert Gelbard that he would keep a lid on anti-West rhetoric.

In a challenge to Karadzic, aides to Plavsic said Thursday that she had given her rivals 72 hours to dismiss the principal editors at SRT. It was not clear how she would enforce the ultimatum.

Paramilitary police and the media constitute the two pillars of Karadzic's power. Unwilling to confront Karadzic directly through arrest, international officials are instead chopping away at the underpinnings of his regime.

For weeks, international officials have rebuked SRT for its rhetoric, and on Thursday they again expressed outrage at the hardening tone.

"We have virtually exhausted the legal options open to us," said Duncan Bullivant, spokesman for the international Office of the High Representative. "We do not believe continued political pressure will achieve much."

But NATO and the civilian agencies in charge of enforcing the peace accords continue to disagree on how best to clamp down on the media network. Jamming or shutting it down are seen in some quarters as too heavy-handed. And the Bosnian Serb hard-liners, clustered around Karadzic in their village headquarters of Pale, would certainly react strongly to losing their all-important propaganda tool.

"Right now the Serbs are behaving," said another international official based in Sarajevo. "But if you crack down on SRT they lose their main P.R. tool, and that would be serious. Pale isn't going to start a war over Banja Luka. But pulling the plug on SRT - that will hurt, and there's no guarantee they'd take it as calmly as they are now."