Peace-keepers move in to halt Serb civil war

Tensions mount between rival factions in Pale and Banja Luka

The international community pulled together yesterday to try to prevent a civil war breaking out in Serb-controlled Bosnia. Tension was feared to be mounting between supporters of Biljana Plavsic, the elected President of the Bosnian Serb mini-state - "Republika Srpska" - and those still loyal to ex-president and indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic, including Momcilo Krajisnik, the Serb member of the three-man Presidency of all Bosnia.

On Wednesday, international peace-keepers moved in to Banja Luka in north-west Bosnia to block a possible coup by police opposed to Ms Plavsic, seizing 2,500 illegally held arms and quantities of bugging equipment.

There had been fears that Russia - a member of the five-nation "contact group", along with the US, Britain, France and Germany - would break with the other members over the conduct of elections for a parliamentary assembly due to be held on 11-12 October. But yesterday a meeting of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), held in Vienna, ended on an optimistic note.

The OSCE's main role in the peace-building process is to monitor elections.

Russia, which had opposed OSCE participation in the October elections, "took a flexible position", diplomatic sources said. "They said Plavsic's efforts to implement the [November 1995] Dayton peace accord deserve our support. The idea of holding elections is a good one and the OSCE should continue its preparatory work."

The Danish chairman said all the delegates now thought OSCE involvement was a good idea.

Wednesday's dramatic operation, in which British and Czech ground troops and US gunship helicopters disarmed Bosnian Serb police opposed to Ms Plavsic was a clear intervention in what might have become a civil war between rival Bosnian Serb factions. Yesterday morning the inter- national stabilisation force - S-For - was on tenterhooks, wondering whether armed opposition would break out. Plavsic's opponents condemned her as a collaborator, and even compared her to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Karadzic supporters issued a proclamation describing the move into Banja Luka as "an attempt at foreign occupation" and condemning Plavsic as a traitor.

Later in the day the UN's International Police Task Force continued going through the material seized in the five police depots in Banja Luka on Wednesday.

The haul included rocket launchers, thousands of rounds of ammunition, hand grenades and, "a couple of items that belong more in a James Bond movie than in a police station", according to UN spokesman Alexander Ivanko. Under the Dayton agreement the Bosnian Serb police are allowed side arms but not "long-barrelled weapons" - rifles - let alone rocket launchers. The items included booby-trapped pens, plastic explosives and fake UN licence plates.

International diplomats believe Ms Plavsic, who was democratically elected in September last year, can be trusted and hope she will help find and extradite war crimes suspects Karadzic and Ratko Mladic.

US envoy Robert Gelbard blamed Krajisnik and Karadzic for creating "an extremely dangerous situation" by "refusing to permit the rule of law and the exercise of democracy and democratic institutions".

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