Serbs: 'We Will Kill You'

IT LOOKED MORE LIKE THE WEST Bank than Bosnia near the northern border town of Brcko last week. Rock-throwing youths hid their faces under black balaclavas and charged U.S. troops in gas masks. Older Serbs used bottles and clubs to smash windshields of Humvees pulling out of the U.S. Army's Camp McGovern. Foreign journalists were beaten in the streets, and U.N. relief workers scrambled into hiding. U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopters fired tear gas into crowds of angry Serbs wielding axes, clubs and iron bars. Demonstrators taunted the GIs in broken English: ""You will see who are the Serbs. We will kill you all.''

Spokesmen for the American-led Stabilization Force (SFOR) insisted that troops were simply trying to put themselves between two feuding groups of Bosnian Serbs. That's not how it looks on the ground. Over the past two weeks, NATO has tried to intervene decisively on the side of Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic in her dispute with hard-liners led by indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic. Thanks to a show of force by NATO troops, pro-Plavsic police took over precincts in Banja Luka, and her supporters wrested control of strategic TV transmitters from Karadzic allies. But last Thursday, when peacekeepers surrounded a police barracks in Brcko, a Karadzic stronghold, hard-liners fought back. One U.S. soldier may lose an eye; another suffered a broken nose.

The biggest casualty may be the Dayton peace plan. In Washington, Pentagon officials said American troops were prepared to defend themselves in any way necessary. A White House official warned: ""We're making it clear to the Serbs that this will not be tolerated.'' That official also told NEWSWEEK the White House is concerned that an increasingly desperate Karadzic will try to have Plavsic assassinated or launch a wave of terrorist attacks. Indeed, the terror may have commenced last Friday: a bomb exploded at the train station in Banja Luka, Plavsic's headquarters, killing one. If Karadzic's supporters keep up their attacks, U.S. soldiers--with or without other NATO troops--are likely to strike back. For now, though, the riots, as well as the terrorist threat, have only cemented Washington's support for Plavsic.

Once little more than Karadzic's stooge, Plavsic was elected president in his place because the Dayton accord forbade indicted war criminals to run for office. But in June she broke with Karadzic, denouncing him and his cronies as corrupt profiteers whose opposition to Dayton has deprived Serbs of generous reconstruction aid. Over several weeks she dismissed pro-Karadzic officials and dissolved the Parliament. Police and soldiers divided roughly into geographic camps: those in Banja Luka, where Plavsic had her offices, versus those in Pale, where Karadzic is based. Western officials sided with Plavsic.

Then NATO announced that it would begin treating all Bosnian Serb Special Police as military units, subject to inspection and disarmament by peacekeepers. This directly threatened Karadzic's power--the special police are essentially his Praetorian Guard--and could increase the chances that he'll be arrested for war crimes.

What really infuriated the Karadzic camp was Plavsic's decision to end Pale's domination of Serb TV. Her supporters quickly took control of the transmitter reaching half of the Serb population. They then persuaded guards to leave another transmitter near Doboj, which broadcasts far into the heart of Karadzic country. Local journalists changed sides, heartened by the new freedom to speak out. ""We don't think anymore with somebody else's head. We think with our own,'' said reporter Slavisa Slavnic, 51, who admitted to having lied for years as a Serb TV journalist. NATO had considered shutting down Serb TV in retaliation for its attacks on the peace- keepers. But Americans were reluctant to suppress free speech, however odious; Plavsic's takeover seemed a good way out.

For many on Plavsic's side, last week's liberation was a heady experience--even if brief. ""There was violence here during the war, not just against Muslims and Croats but against Serbs, too,'' said Milovan Stankovic, a Serb parliamentarian who led Plavsic supporters in the liberation of the Doboj transmitter on Wednesday. ""People will now start to watch objective television, and you will see a change in a couple days.'' Many may not get that chance. While Stankovic was talking to a NEWSWEEK reporter outside the transmitter shack, a bullhorn suddenly blared: ""Police!'' Serb cops, described by Stankovic as ""Karadzic's goons,'' surrounded the site: ""You have 20 minutes to surrender, or we will start shooting.'' Plavsic's supporters surrendered while NATO troops in the area refused to intervene.

Perhaps NATO's hesitation gave heart to the hard-liners. When U.S. troops moved in on the Brcko police station the next day at 3 in the morning, the locals were spoiling for a fight. Organizers turned on air-raid sirens, and crowds flooded into the streets. Often led by elderly women, they attacked American troops with sticks and rocks. By the next day the pro-Karadzic parts of Bosnia were in an uproar. The protesters were virulently anti-American. ""Americans bring evil,'' one shouted. ""With God's help Clinton will get AIDS.''

Washington insisted the Dayton peace plan wasn't in trouble--yet. Karadzic will likely tread carefully, stoking anti-NATO passions among his supporters while avoiding a direct challenge to SFOR. Says one Pentagon source: ""He has to reckon that if he starts killing SFOR soldiers--especially if he's crazy enough to kill an American--then all bets are off.'' In the end, what happens at the police stations will prove much less important than who rules the airwaves. Karadzic's supporters ""have lost their monopoly on the media,'' says a White House official. ""[Plavsic] can now reach 40 to 60 percent of the population.'' In a speech to her supporters last week, she pleaded, ""Hold out, my people. There is not far to go before we can bring order into our house.'' But it's not at all clear that either Plavsic or SFOR can do that as long as Karadzic is free.