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In Banja Luka, Moderate Serbs Far from Supporting Dayton Agreement

May 29, 1996

BANJA LUKA, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ This Bosnian Serb town, named for spring-fed natural baths in the swirling Vrbas River, is best known for having cleaned out its Muslim population during the Balkans war.

Now, Western powers label Banja Luka the stronghold of moderate Serbs willing to shuck ultranationalist policies and adhere to the Dayton peace agreement.

As in all of Bosnia, appearances often deceive.

While Banja Luka’s wide, tree-lined avenues and bustling outdoor cafes create an image of freedom and openness, attitudes expressed here sound much like the closed, protective doctrine that spawned warfare.

Such rigidness is bad news for the United States and other Western powers trying to stem the influence of hard-line Bosnian Serb leaders opposed to Dayton _ and it raises the question of whether Serb can be categorized as a moderate.

On a park bench near the central square, college students in blue jeans and peace symbols talked with a foreign journalist about music and America _ anything but the bloody past.

After a few minutes, the caution dissipated, along with any pretense of wanting Muslims to return, as called for by accords reached in Dayton, Ohio.

``We can’t live with two bloods. There are too many hatreds,″ said Jugoslav Jevdjic, 23. The West talks only about Serb atrocities without mentioning that Serbs also were attacked and lost family, he said, adding: ``Our graveyards are full.″

Aleksandar Zolja, 22, said his friends ``want to build this country again, to make money.″ That means changing the image of Serbs because ``the world looks on us like animals, like evil people.″

He then repeated the hard-line mantra that Muslims and Croats must stay away, adding: ``We can live like a neighbor, an economical and political neighbor. That’s it.″

Returning Muslims would find little welcome in Banja Luka. Every mosque has been destroyed _ not just abandoned or stripped but leveled to leave no trace. Muslim homes have been ransacked or taken over by Serbs.

The city’s moderate image comes from its university and ties to better-developed Croatia to the north. Good transport and trade links opened better communications, including Croatian television beamed to the city, giving Banja Luka more international exposure than the rest of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Small political opposition groups operate here, and some independent newspapers and broadcasting break the stranglehold of government propaganda.

But even opposition figures and intellectuals have their limits.

The Dayton accord calls for war refugees to be free to return to their homes. That could bring thousands of Muslims back to Republic Srpska, the Bosnian Serb entity supposed to function with a Muslim-Croat federation under a loose, joint leadership.

``The wish of ... the majority of citizens of the Republic Srpska is to live together with Serbia and Yugoslavia,″ said Igor Radojicic of the Socialist Party of Republika Srpska, an opposition group in Banja Luka. ``Every political party, every politician, has to respect that. If there will be in the future some chance to unify with Yugoslavia, we will do it.″

Even Mladen Ivanic of the Serb Forum of Independent Intellectuals, presumably the most moderate voice in Banja Luka, set a threshold of a 20 percent non-Serb minority as acceptable _ under Serb control, of course.

Hard-line leaders insist the Bosnian Serb republic must remain ethnically pure, for Serbs only. Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic, an indicted war criminal, fired Banja Luka-based prime minister Rajko Kasagic this month for backing the Dayton agreement too strongly.

Western leaders supported Kasagic to try to undermine Karadzic’s authority. But the Bosnian Serb parliament easily approved Kasagic’s ouster.

Muslim leaders kicked out of the Banja Luka region four years ago scoffed at the West’s moderate billing for Kasagic, saying he helped plan ethnic cleansing.

Sead Cipkin, a Muslim mayor from the nearby Prijedor area now living south of Serb territory, summed up a popular view: ``The difference between Karadzic and Kasagic is height and color of eyes.″

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