The international peace-keeping force in Bosnia was sucked into the increasingly violent stand-off between the two rival factions in Serb-held territory yesterday, as angry crowds accused foreign soldiers and policemen of taking sides and pelted them with stones and batons in Brcko and other key towns.
The Nato Stabilisation Force, or S-For, moved its forces during the night to positions around police stations in Brcko, Bijeljina and Doboj, ostensibly to "defuse tension" because of the continuing power struggle between the Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic and supporters of the ousted leader and suspected war criminal Radovan Karadzic.
In fact, the S-For troops appeared to be protecting Mrs Plavsic's attempts to wrest control of the police stations for herself. Alerted in Brcko by an air raid siren and elsewhere by inflammatory radio messages transmitted from Mr Karadzic's headquarters in Pale, outside Sarajevo, angry crowds soon formed and began attacking the peace-keepers.
In Brcko, amid a cacophony of screams, gun-shots, tear gas volleys and hurtling stones, the S-For troops were forced to retreat from their positions across a bridge. Later, the entire contingent of international police, known as the IPTF, was evacuated from the town.
It was not clear how many people were hurt, but there were reports of at least two American soldiers injured and eyewitness reports of civilians bleeding and bruised.
There were reports of similar incidents in other towns. Unconfirmed reports said United Nations vehicles had been set on fire and soldiers hurt in the eastern village of Celopek, between Bijeljina and Zvornik. In Bijeljina, the situation was described by one S-For official as "very tense".
In all the confusion, it was not clear whether Mrs Plavsic's supporters had succeeded in taking over the police stations or not. Western officials suggested that they had, and that the resistance was the last noisy protest of a group of hardliners who knew they were on the losing side, but this view could not be independently confirmed.
Mrs Plavsic has been gradually extending her power base eastwards from her stronghold in Banja Luka. Her men took over the police station in Banja Luka just over a week ago with the help of 350 British and Czech troops. Brcko is the pivotal point between the northern and eastern swaths of Serb-held Bosnia and thus is of crucial strategic significance.
The past few days have seen tense stand-offs for control not only of police stations but also of television transmission points.
The international community has made it clear, both diplomatically and military, that it supports Mrs Plavsic, arguing that she seems more willing to implement the Dayton peace accords than her rivals. The public face of Mr Karadzic's faction, the Serb member of the three-man Bosnian presidency Momcilo Krajisnik, yesterday accused S-For of overstepping its mandate. "S-For has turned into a force that we would not wish to describe as one of occupation, but which is getting very close to that description," Mr Krajisnik told the Yugoslav news agency Tanjug.