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NATO General Warns Hard-Line Croats

May 1, 1998

DRVAR, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ Backed by Apache helicopters and armored vehicles, NATO’s top commander toured this violence-wracked town Friday to warn hard-line Croats against attacking returning Serbs.

NATO commander U.S. Gen. Wesley Clark visited Drvar along with Gen. Eric Shinseki, the alliance’s commander in Bosnia, and Carlos Westendorp, Bosnia’s top international mediator.

The visit _ and the tight security surrounding it _ underlined the uneasiness following a riot last week by 1,500 Croats who burned Serb homes and aid offices, overturned vehicles and hurled stones at Serbs and U.N. peacekeepers. About 20 people were injured.

Tensions in Drvar soared two weeks ago after an elderly Serb couple was discovered murdered in their burning home. Croat hard-liners have continued harassing Serbs since last week’s riots and more than 200 have fled to Serb-held territory.

Helicopters buzzed overhead Friday and NATO armored vehicles prowled the streets of Drvar, a town seen as a test of international resolve to get Bosnian refugees back home this year.

The town, 140 miles west of Sarajevo, was almost wholly Serb before the Bosnian war, but was taken over by Croat forces in 1995 and now houses about 8,000 Croats driven from homes elsewhere in Bosnia by the Serbs. About 2,000 Serbs have returned, most in recent months.

Westendorp said NATO officials and diplomats were ``putting together a series of measures″ to be announced shortly.

International officials are expected to remove local Croat hard-liners from office, bar them from September elections and bring criminal charges against them. NATO and the U.N. international police have beefed up security and plan immediate aid to rebuild burned Serb homes.

``We will not tolerate an attempt to return to the ethnic hatred and violence from the past,″ said Maj. Chris Kinsville-Heyne, a British NATO spokesman.

A confidential report by one international group said Bosnian Croat soldiers and the local police chief participated in last week’s riot, which it said was organized by a Croat fired by Westendorp last month as Drvar’s deputy mayor.

On Friday, a U.S. Navy P-C3 Orion surveillance plane flew over Drvar, videotaping the area with a zoom lens. Crewmembers told an Associated Press reporter on board that their job was to look for large crowds, roadblocks or any disturbances.

Pero Novakovic, a 67-year-old Serb, said Bosnian Serbs in town don’t have electricity and are afraid to go out to buy food.

``I am still an optimist, but all depends upon the international community,″ he said.

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