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NATO Troops Move to Stop Serb-Muslim Clashes

April 29, 1996

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ Ignoring an armed NATO escort, Serbs today hurled stones and sticks at a convoy of Muslims trying to visit homes they fled four years ago.

About a dozen people were injured and several buses were damaged before the Muslims turned back.

The convoy’s French escorts tried to calm the Serbs, but did not forcibly intervene, said Maj. Guy Vinet of the NATO-led peace force.

Hundreds of Muslims were traveling from Sarajevo to Trnovo, 20 miles to the south. They passed angry Serbs just outside the capital, but retreated after about 200 Serbs blocked the way north of Trnovo.

The NATO-led force has been reluctant to shoulder new responsibilities in Bosnia beyond those specifically assigned to it in the U.S.-brokered peace agreement.

But facing the threat of ethnic violence as refugees try to return to homes now held by ethic groups who drove them out in the first place, it has begun providing escorts and performing crowd control and other police work it initially rejected.

Most military provisions of the peace accord have been respected, because all sides fear NATO’s weaponry. But Serbs, Croats and Muslims often ignore other, civilian provisions of the peace pact that don’t carry any threat of NATO retaliation.

One of the frequently flouted pledges is full freedom of movement, including refugees’ rights to return home. The NATO-led force got involved after several confrontations between returnees and those trying to keep them away turned violent.

Yet even the presence of French troops, some of them in six light tanks, did not prevent today’s attack on the convoy of seven buses, dozens of cars and three vans carrying some 500 Muslims.

The Trnovo trip was one of two planned today for refugees wanting to visit their homes, said Mans Nyberg, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Only one of 12 similar trips Sunday was successful, the UNHCR said.

Ironically, the NATO-led force in some cases has restricted freedom of movement. On Sunday, for instance, NATO-led troops blocked crowds of Muslim refugees who tried to visit former homes on a religious holiday, even while permitting some pedestrians and individual cars to cross into Serb territory.

About 300 U.S. troops set up a dozen checkpoints on the 12-mile road from their headquarters in Tuzla southeast to the Serb-held town of Mahala.

``We are limiting freedom of movement, sure,″ said Lt. Col. Tony Harriman, of Delta, Colo., who commanded the U.S. operation. ``But people can walk through. We are doing that so we don’t get a massive crowd of people on either side.″

Polish troops stopped some 200 Muslims from entering the Serb-held town of Teslic in northern Bosnia on Sunday to prevent a confrontation with a crowd of Serbs armed with sticks and bats.