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NATO troops attacked in Serb-held towns, one American injured

August 28, 1997

BRCKO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ Serbs attacked U.S. troops with stones and firebombs today, injuring at least one American in one of NATO’s worst confrontations in Bosnia. The peace force fired tear gas and warning shots to disperse the angry crowds.

A U.S. soldier in Brcko had his nose broken by a piece of wood, said NATO spokesman Capt. Edward Griffin. Another NATO soldier _ likely an American _ was hit in the eye by rocks, a different spokesman said.

Bosnian Serb sources said several U.S. soldiers were wounded in a clash near the eastern village of Celopek, but NATO did not confirm that.

The unrest appeared most serious in northwestern town of Brcko, where NATO helicopters dropped tear gas and fired shots after a crowd attacked a U.N. police station.

Roving mobs used wooden poles to smash cars belonging to international agencies. NATO said rival Serbs in the town were fighting each other and fire bombs were thrown at U.S. troops.

American and other NATO-led troops had moved into Brcko, Bijeljina and Doboj to ``deter the outbreak of violence″ after hearing that forces loyal to Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic would try to take control of police stations and the media in Serb-held areas of northern Bosnia.

Plasvic is locked in a power struggle with war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic. Plavsic, a former Karadzic protege, now accuses him of growing rich through corruption and black market deals.

NATO and international officials back her drive to isolate Karadzic, whom they would like to see stand trial in the U.N. war crimes court in the Netherlands.

Such foreign support has embittered the Karadzic loyalists. The hostility toward the NATO troops today appeared at least partially orchestrated by them, with pro-Karadzic radio stations urging crowds to take to the streets in Brcko and Bijeljina.

The Bosnian Serbs’ pro-Karadzic premier, Gojko Klickovic, told a rally of 3,000 people that Serbs had accepted the peace force ``as people and as democrats ... but what they are doing is not within their mandate.″

He said Bosnian Serb leaders would tell peace force officials ``they are not welcome.″

``We won’t give them Karadzic,″ he proclaimed.

Media loyal to Karadzic claimed NATO troops wounded four civilians in Brcko and said 20 people were injured in the Brcko rioting. Dr. Dragan Ninkovic at the town’s hospital said some patients had bullet wounds.

Brcko’s shops were shuttered today and men shouted out of speeding cars, waving posters of Karadzic.

Crowds attacked the U.N. police station, destroying 15 U.N. vehicles and slightly injuring three of 40 officers evacuated by NATO, U.N. spokesman Liam McDowell said.

In Washington, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. John Shalikashvili said the demonstration in Brcko was ``probably something organized″ and that American troops ``got caught up″ in it. He said one American was hurt but the area now ``seems fairly quiet.″

Asked if NATO would retaliate, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said: ``We won’t tolerate either side inciting people loyal to their particular position to incite any violence against the (NATO-led) troops.″

The Dayton peace accord that ended the fighting divided Bosnia between the Serbs and a Muslim-Croat federation. Brcko is in the part of Serb-held Bosnia patrolled by American troops.

Considered crucial to all sides in Bosnia, Brcko sits astride a narrow Serb-held corridor, the only link between the two halves of Serb territory in Bosnia. It was the site of fierce battles during the 1992-95 Bosnian war.

In Bijeljina, witnesses said hundreds of irate residents blockaded the police station with trucks and tractors, apparently to prevent NATO troops from reaching it. The road to Brcko, 25 miles north, was also blocked. NATO-led troops had moved away from the station to avoid a clash.

The Bosnian Serb news agency SRNA quoted Karadzic loyalist Velibor Ostojic as saying that the NATO-led peace force had ``started the occupation″ of Serb areas at Plavsic’s request.

Ljuba Maratovic, director of the pro-Karadzic radio station in Brcko, said NATO-led forces arrived at the main police station during the night. He said local Serbs prevented them from entering, and the soldiers withdrew but remained in town.

Brcko residents said their police chief recently switched sides in the power struggle and now was supporting Plavsic, who formed her own political party today.

Plavsic controls the western section of the Serb half of Bosnia from her base in Banja Luka. Karadzic controls the eastern section from Pale, a village just east of the capital, Sarajevo.

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