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U.S. Backed Serb Leader Plavsic Concedes to Hard-Liner Poplasen

By Paul Watson
Los Angeles Times
SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina

In a serious setback to U.S. efforts to build a lasting peace in Bosnia, moderate nationalist Serb leader Biljana Plavsic has conceded defeat to a hard-liner in this month's elections.

The United States and other Western powers openly promoted Plavsic as the best alternative to more strident Serb nationalists allied with indicted war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic.

Candidates who stepped out of line during the campaign were simply disqualified from the elections supervised by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The organization disqualified nine Serb candidates Monday, but Nikola Poplasen, Plavsic's likely successor as president of the Serb republic within Bosnia, survived.

Plavsic, a former hard-liner herself, insisted she hasn't given up on democracy or her struggle to lead Bosnian Serbs, who call their territory Republika Srpska, out of isolation.

"We are the ones who opened Republika Srpska to the rest of the world," Plavsic told reporters in her former stronghold, Banja Luka. "It would be absurd for whoever wins this election to close that door."

The final results of Bosnia's Sept. 1213 national elections, which were contested by 58 parties, aren't expected until Wednesday at the earliest.

But early indications are that Plavsic wasn't the only moderate to fall when Bosnians cast ballots in a complex election for regional and national assemblies and a three-person presidency.

By giving new life to hard-liners opposed to a multiethnic Bosnia-Herzegovina, Plavsic's defeat likely will make it more difficult to win compromises on the key disputes still threatening peace.

The most pressing issue is the promise enshrined in the 1995 Dayton, Ohio, peace accord that "ethnic cleansing" would be reversed and Bosnian refugees forced from their homes would be allowed to return.

An estimated 1 million Bosnians were displaced within Bosnia during the three-year war, and another 1 million fled the country altogether.

So far, only about 150,000 of them have been allowed to return to their homes. Most of those live in areas where they are part of the ethnic majority, according to U.N. figures.

Western governments channeled millions of dollars in aid to regions where moderate politicians had the strongest support in the hope that voters of the three main ethnic groups would turn against hard-liners.

It also was part of a strategy to give democracy a firmer foothold and make it easier for foreign troops, including some 7,000 from the United States, to pull out.

Underlining the significance of Plavsic's loss to the Western peace efforts, the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo warned Americans to avoid unnecessary travel to Serb-held areas. The "emotional tone of the political rhetoric" is mounting there, and "may serve to heighten tensions in the region," the travel advisory said.