Boycott endangers Bosnia poll

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Bosnia's municipal elections seemed close to unravelling yesterday, as the main Serb and Croat parties in the country announced they would boycott the poll, while only the intervention of Nato peacekeepers prevented a violent confrontation between rival factions of Bosnian Serbs.

The elections this weekend are a crucial part of the Dayton agreements which ended the three-year Bosnian war in November 1995. But yesterday, in apparently unco-ordinated steps, the Croat Democratic Union (HDZ), and the Serb Democratic Party (SDS) which is loyal to the war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic, declared they would not take part.

The moves came as tensions between the Bosnian Serbs reached new heights, following the thwarting of a planned mass rally on Monday by Karadzic supporters in the west Bosnian city of Banja Luka. If left unhindered, Nato officials said, the gathering could have turned into an attempted coup against Biljana Plavsic, President of the Bosnian Serb Republika Srpska and and sworn foe of Mr Karadzic and his henchmen.

As it was, British and American troops prevented thousands of Karadzic supporters from entering Banja Luka. Yesterday they escorted some of those who did make it from a hotel in Banja Luka, to jeering chants of "Thieves, Thieves," from a furious, pro-Plavsic crowd. But Mr Karadzic's humiliation was not over. His key aide Momcilo Krajisnik was forced to flee the hotel in a car whose windows were smashed as he drove off.

As he did so, the SDS called from its headquarters in the Karadzic stronghold of Pale in eastern Bosnia for "all Bosnian Serbs" to go to Banja Luka "to liberate their leaders". The party also said it would boycott the elections. The vote was impossible, it said, "amid the total crisis of the Dayton peace accord".

Despite the explosive tensions, officials of the Organisation for Co- operation and Security in Europe, which is supervising the voting, insisted the election would go ahead. They claimed the boycott threats were primarily tactical ploys to force OCSE to relax its strict regulations on voter registration, or provide an excuse if the poll results were unfavourable.

In the case of the Serbs moreover, there is the added fear that during the election, Nato forces will act to arrest if not Mr Karadzic, then other war crimes suspects named in alleged secret lists of indicted war criminals drawn up by the special UN tribunal in The Hague.