Confrontations between American-led international peacekeeping troops and Bosnian Serb protesters have left the Clinton administration-brokered peace plan for Bosnia-Herzegovina facing its most serious challenge since it was signed in November 1995.
The violence stemmed from an escalating power struggle between Bosnian Serb leaders, the outcome of which could determine the success or failure of the already faltering initiative to avert a resumption of the almost four years of bloodshed between Bosnia's Muslims, Croats, and Serbs.
The international community is backing Biljana Plavsic, the president of the Serb Republic, the half of Bosnia awarded to Bosnian Serbs by the Dayton accord, against allies of her predecessor, Radovan Karadzic, who has been indicted on war crime charges. Mrs. Plavsic has vowed to implement the accord, which Mr. Karadzic and his loyalists have consistently sought to derail.
The crisis deepened yesterday when pro-Plavsic police staged pre-dawn takeovers of police stations in five northern towns in a move to expand her control outside her northwestern stronghold of Banja Luka, where SFOR last week turned over to her the local police department after ousting pro-Karadzic commanders.
Western officials said the raids succeeded in the towns of Modrica, Dervanta, and Brcko, but failed in Bijeljina and Doboj. They said that, because of concerns that the takeovers would ignite fighting between the two factions, troops and armored vehicles of the 35,000-strong NATO-led stabilization force (SFOR) were deployed in key locations in the Serb Republic, including Karadzic's mountaintop headquarters of Pale, east of Sarajevo. In response, pro-Karadzic officials incited crowds to take to the streets of Brcko, which sits on a narrow corridor connecting the two halves of the Serb Republic.
Using air-raid sirens to awaken their supporters, the pro-Karadzic officials exhorted them over the local radio to confront US peacekeeping troops deployed around the police station.
Hundreds of protesters, most of them refugees from other parts of Bosnia, began pelting the US troops with rocks. One SFOR soldier was injured slightly by a club-wielding protester, and two officers of the UN-run international police force were lightly hurt when protesters tried to pull them from their vehicle, Western officials said.
Protesters also attacked the UN police station and damaged 15 vehicles. The station was besieged for 10 hours before 58 UN officers were evacuated by SFOR troops. Witnesses said three UN police were lightly hurt as the convoy came under barrages of bricks and stones.
In an attempt to ease the tensions, US troops withdrew to a bridge near the police station. But the protesters followed, hurling rocks. They launched two flaming gasoline bombs at a US armored vehicle, causing minor damage. That prompted US troops to fire tear gas into the crowd and warning shots in the air, SFOR spokesman Capt. Edward Griffin said.
Pro-Karadzic officials also organized an anti-NATO demonstration in Bijeljina while Karadzic-controlled Pale television spewed hours of incendiary anti-NATO propaganda.
Western officials said the growing crisis would not shake international backing for Plavsic.
"In view of Mrs. Plavsic's support for Dayton, the international community has no choice but to continue backing her," said one Western official.
But just how the civilian and military officials overseeing the plan's implementation would address the latest crisis without further embroiling SFOR in the feud remained to be seen.
The Pentagon has been strenuously seeking to avoid using SFOR for police functions, eager to avert the kind of debacle that led to the slayings of American peacekeeping troops in Somalia in 1993. The Republican-controlled US Congress has also voiced similar concerns. But yesterday's violence increases the likelihood of greater SFOR involvement.
In an effort to defuse the crisis, the US this week sought intervention on Plavsic's behalf by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. But it was unclear how he might influence the situation.
The power struggle erupted in early July, when Plavsic accused Karadzic and his loyalists of massive corruption. She fired Interior Minister Dragan Kijac, dissolved the pro-Karadzic parliament, and called new elections for October. Thursday's violence, however, cast serious doubt over whether the elections could be held.