Banja Luka - Nato soldiers intervened yesterday when special police loyal to Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic seized control of a building which they said rival police were using to tap her telephones.
British troops in light armoured vehicles and two platoons of Royal Military Police deployed around the police building in the north-western town of Banja Luka to prevent possible violence, Major John Blakeley, a Nato spokesman, said.
He said the peacekeeping troops in the Nato-led Stabilisation Force (SFOR) moved in after learning that Mrs Plavsic's special police units had entered the building at about 4.30am.
Several hours later, hardline nationalists opposed to Plavsic asked permission to send in their special police to counter the action, but the SFOR rejected the request.
Plavsic's police commander, Dragan Lukac, said his men seized the public security centre in Banja Luka because they believed police loyal to her government opponents were tapping telephones and faxes in the president's office.
The SFOR said the action by Mrs Plavsic's forces violated new guidelines for special police handed down by Nato this month.
"Lukac has been informed that his actions were in non-compliance with the regulations," Major Blakeley said.
British troops were in control of the building and as of last night Serb police from the rival camps were still being questioned inside, he said.
Yesterday's police action reflected rising tensions in Bosnia's Serb territory where supporters of Mrs Plavsic are waging a battle for power against loyalists of the ex-president and indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic.
Western officials say Plavsic has been aware for some time that her office was under close surveillance from her rivals. Her police conducted a sudden search of the main hotel in Banja Luka last month looking for bugging devices.
Dragan Lukac said evidence was found yesterday that showed secret police loyal to Karadzic had "continuously tapped" the president's telephone conversations.
Momcilo Krajisnik, an ally of Karadzic and the Serb member of Bosnia's collective presidency, had contacted the SFOR asking to meet about an "urgent" matter.
Mr Krajisnik said he wanted to deploy RS (Serb republic) specialist police for an operational matter. Colonel Steven Rausch, another SFOR spokesman, said. "That permission was denied by SFOR."
Nato has set down new rules for special police in Bosnia as part of an attempt to clamp down on units which underpin Mr Karadzic's covert authority. But it was police loyal to Mrs Plavsic who ended up violating the guidelines first.
Western governments have thrown their weight behind Mrs Plavsic because they say she has shown willingness to abide by the country's peace agreement.