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Bosnia Serbs Feel West's Cold Shoulder

International community turns to city of Banja Luka to find an alternative to hard-liners in Pale led by Karadzic

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / May 15, 1996


Unable to break the nationalist grip of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic any other way, Western officials are trying to isolate him by shifting their focus from his tiny mountain base of Pale to the Serbs' largest city, Banja Luka.

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Indicted twice by the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague for genocide and crimes against humanity, Mr. Karadzic is seen here as the chief obstacle to the success of the Dayton peace accords.

Karadzic and other hard-line Serb leaders were meant to be marginalized by the peace process. Instead, they have clung to power, still preaching their wartime ideology of ethnic separation and blocking all moves to reunify Bosnia.

Because Karadzic is an indicted war criminal, Western officials have no direct contact with him. But by all accounts, the self-appointed "president" of the Republika Srpska, as Bosnian Serb territory is called, is still firmly in control.

Despairing of ever persuading this Pale leadership of accepting the spirit of the peace accord, the United Nations, diplomats, and civilian and military officials who are charged with implementing the accord have turned to the city of Banja Luka in search of more moderate Serb leaders.

"We can't shoot Karadzic, so we've got to build up opposition to him where we can," said one senior European diplomat who plans to travel regularly to Banja Luka. "The atmosphere there is so much more open than in Pale, where everybody feels that Karadzic is listening over their shoulder."

Serb territory is divided into two halves linked by a narrow corridor. Pale is a small ski village nestled in the hills of eastern Bosnia outside Sarajevo and is Mr. Karadzic's self-declared capital. But some Serbs in Banja Luka, an industrial city in the west, are now questioning Karadzic's leadership.

'Heart of Darkness'

Once referred to by UN spokesmen as the "Heart of Darkness" for the brutal efficiency of the "ethnic cleansing" campaigns against Muslims in the area, Banja Luka is now being put forward by Western officials as the "reasonable" alternative to Pale.

Until now, visiting peace mediators made regular pilgrimages to Pale to try to convince Karadzic's leadership to accept their plans. But there is a growing realization, one UN official said, "that this is a waste of time, like banging your head against the wall."

Karadzic forbade Bosnian Serbs from taking part in a donors' conference in Brussels last month, and he has stymied every effort so far to integrate Serb and Muslim-Croat territories. Development projects meant to cross ethnic boundaries, from rebuilding homes to reconnecting telephone lines, are on hold.

Leading the charge to Banja Luka has been Carl Bildt, the Swedish diplomat whose office is responsible for the civilian side of the peace plan.

Making a strong political statement, he opened an office in Banja Luka and stayed there throughout last week, holding high-profile meetings with Serb authorities.

Michael Steiner, his deputy in Sarajevo, said the plan to marginalize Pale is deliberate.