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Serb Mobs Bombard U.S. Troops; Soldiers Fire Tear Gas on Crowds

By Edward Cody
The Washington Post
BRCKO, BOSnia

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 under the Dayton peace accord, which ended the 1992-95 war that devastated this former Yugoslav republic and split it into Serb, Muslim and Croat parastates.

The sudden violence here and in the towns of Bijeljina and Doboj 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 American soldiers nearby. "We are the ones in charge here."

Faced with hundreds of angry Serbs, unarmed U.N. police monitors stationed here 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 pickup trucks 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 K. Albright, who cited it as an example of progress in restoring peace and coexistence to postwar Bosnia.

Col. Steven F. Rausch, the 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 here have resorted to tear gas against Bosnians.

The U.S. soldiers, who came to Bosnia at the end of 1995 as the biggest section of an international NATO peace force established under the Dayton pact, have been thinned to about 8,500. As the Clinton administration's public policy stands now, they are scheduled to withdraw entirely by the summer of 1998. But they are widely expected to prolong their stay under one guise or another for fear that fighting could break out again if the Bosnians are left to themselves.

Lt. Col. Jim Cronin said the two U.S. soldiers were wounded lightly.