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NATO troops seal off police stations in Bosnian town, seize weapons

August 20, 1997

BANJA LUKA, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ NATO-led troops took over police headquarters and barracks and seized truckloads of weapons Wednesday from police loyal to indicted wartime leader Radovan Karadzic, moving deeper into a growing dispute among Bosnian Serbs.

Western powers are intent on weakening Karadzic and eventually sending him to an international tribunal to face genocide charges. As long as Karadzic is at large and pulling the levers of power, there is little chance that the Bosnian peace agreement signed in 1995 can work.

NATO’s intervention comes at the request of Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic, and could push the Serb republic _ which accounts for 49 percent of Bosnia _ closer to a break-up.

About 350 British and Czech soldiers, 50 armored vehicles and helicopters went into action early Wednesday after an appeal from Plavsic to U.S. envoy Robert Gelbard.

They sealed off Banja Luka police headquarters, the police academy, a special police barracks and three district police stations.

Plavsic is politically weaker than Karadzic and his loyalists, who include the Serb member of Bosnia’s three-man presidency, Momcilo Krajisnik. However, she has started a campaign against Karadzic and Krajisnik, accusing them of getting rich off smuggling while ordinary Serbs struggle with poverty and unemployment.

Plavsic called for elections in an attempt to replace the pro-Karadzic Bosnian Serb assembly, but the Bosnian Serb Constitutional Court ruled against her Friday. The dispute has since escalated, and a well-equipped special police unit loyal to Plavsic moved in Sunday to the main Banja Luka police station.

To punish them for exceeding their authority, NATO took away their weapons. That, however, left Plavsic virtually defenseless.

International officials said more than 100 pro-Karadzic police quickly arrived in Banja Luka. Krajisnik came Tuesday, as did Gelbard.

Plavsic was in a ``critical situation,″ said a diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. ``She could have been arrested, she could have been charged with crimes against the constitution.″

The diplomat said Plavsic ``begged″ Gelbard for help.

Maj. Mike Moran, a NATO spokesman in Banja Luka, said soldiers found more than 2,500 weapons, including assault rifles, submachine-guns, pistols, rocket launchers, hand grenades and explosives.

A NATO official in Sarajevo said they were carted away in three 4-ton trucks. Hours later, pro-Karadzic police left the buildings and policemen loyal to Plavsic started entering.

Plavsic visited the central police station, and said she was shocked by the number of weapons. Someone was giving the police orders, she said, ``and that someone wasn’t me.″

Bosnian Serb territory already is divided geographically between northwest Bosnia, where Plavsic dominates, and eastern Bosnia, where Karadzic is in control. A narrow corridor connects the two chunks.

With NATO’s protection, it seems unlikely pro-Karadzic forces will be able to dislodge Plavsic. However, she is not strong enough on her own to make a move against Karadzic.

If Plavsic goes ahead with elections in October _ balloting not recognized in eastern Bosnia _ Serbs likely would have two competing assemblies and governments, a situation of such chaos that it also could lead to the republic’s collapse. In such circumstances, NATO might find it easier move against Karadzic _ something it so far has been reluctant to do.

The Bosnian Serb news agency SRNA carried a proclamation from the Karadzic camp that described the NATO move into Banja Luka as ``an attempt at foreign occupation″ and Plavsic as a traitor.

Moran, the NATO spokesman in Banja Luka, said Wednesday’s actions would allow NATO and international police to restructure the Banja Luka police force. That could help secure Plavsic’s position in Banja Luka.

The raid also allowed investigators to finish looking into charges that pro-Karadzic police had bugged Plavsic’s conversations and intimidated judges, Moran said.

International officials have supported Plavsic’s accusation that the Constitutional Court was intimidated into ruling against her call for fresh elections.

Simon Haselock, a spokesman for the top international official in Bosnia, said investigators found tapes of conversations between judges of the Constitutional Court, and between Plavsic and local and international officials _ including Haselock’s boss, Carlos Westendorp.

Update hourly