A soldier in the Bosnian Serb army assassinated Bosnian Deputy Prime Minister Hakija Turajlic on Friday at an illegal roadblock near the Sarajevo airport, pushing aside a French U.N. commander to gun down the Muslim politician as he sat in a U.N. armored personnel carrier.
The killing, which occurred 400 yards from the French-run U.N. command post, dealt a major blow to the standing of U.N. peacekeeping forces in Bosnia and jeopardized U.N.-sponsored peace talks due to resume Sunday in Geneva.
Turajlic was returning from an airport meeting when the U.N. vehicle, which carried its normal crew of three French soldiers, was stopped by 40 Bosnian Serb soldiers, two tanks and an armored personnel carrier. After a standoff of nearly two hours, one of the Serbs abruptly pushed aside French Col. Patrice Sartre, who had rushed to the scene, and fired seven rounds from an automatic weapon at Turajlic, who was cornered inside the U.N. vehicle. He died instantly.
French Gen. Philippe Morillon, the top U.N. commander in Bosnia, said Sartre and the French soldiers had no time to react to save Turajlic. "The rule of engagement is to return fire only to save life," Morillon said in a news conference at his residence Friday night. "It was, unfortunately, too late."
Morillon said Sartre quickly went to the roadblock with Bosnian government and Serbian liaison officers when the U.N. vehicle was halted at 4:15 p.m. But during the two-hour standoff, no additional U.N. troops were sent from the nearby airport, where hundreds of French peacekeepers are based, despite the intimidating presence of so many Serbian soldiers.
"We were not prepared for such madness," said Morillon. "I hope everyone recognizes that it's better to keep calm. But peace is certainly at risk."
Reaction from the Muslim-led Bosnian government was swift and angry. "We should not continue the Geneva negotiations until the aggressors show they are for peace," said Vice President Ejup Ganic. "This assassination was in a United Nations APC, on a road controlled by the United Nations and under the protection of U.N. soldiers and officers. . . . The United Nations is responsible for this tragedy."
Ganic said the Bosnian Cabinet would meet late Friday night to decide whether to attend the Geneva peace talks, which are scheduled to resume on Sunday after a break for Wednesday's Serbian Orthodox Christmas. The Geneva talks had been viewed as a last chance to resolve the Bosnian conflict. The killing of a top Bosnian politician who was under U.N. protection will probably rekindle calls for Western military intervention against the Serbs.
Morillon said he did not regard Turajlic's killing as a deliberate attempt to end the Geneva talks, but as a stupid action by one soldier.
Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, told of the assassination in Washington as he met members of President-elect Bill Clinton's transition team, called it "a brutal reminder of Serbian atrocities in Bosnia."
Izetbegovic said the fact a U.N. military escort could do little to save Turajlic's life highlighted the plight of his people. "They are sent to my country with guns but can't use them. This is a tragedy," he said.
It was unclear Friday night why the back door of the armored personnel carrier had been opened, revealing Turajlic's presence and opening him up to attack. Under an agreement with the Bosnian government and Bosnian Serbs, the road from the airport is under U.N. control and neither side has the right to set up roadblocks or search U.N. vehicles.
Turajlic was at the airport for a meeting with a Turkish government delegation that had flown into Sarajevo but had not been permitted by the United Nations to enter the city. Turajlic was taken to the airport under U.N. escort, as is customary with top Bosnian officials, and was returning under U.N. protection.
According to Morillon, the Serbian soldiers had been sent from a command post at Lukavica, a few miles from the airport, and set up the roadblock 400 yards from its entrance. They demanded to see the inside of the U.N. vehicle because they claimed Turkish soldiers were being smuggled into the city.
Morillon said Sartre blocked the armored vehicle's open door, but the Serbian soldier pushed him aside and fired seven rounds over the colonel's shoulder at Turajlic, almost at point-blank range.
Morillon said the Serbian soldiers withdrew immediately after the shooting. Sartre, instead of ordering his soldiers to fire back, closed the APC's door and rushed to the U.N. military clinic in downtown Sarajevo. Turajlic was pronounced dead on arrival. All seven bullets had hit his body, three of them in the chest, according to a U.N. official.
Morillon said he was told Bosnian Serb authorities arrested the soldier who had killed Turajlic. But Morillon demanded the disciplining of Gen. Stanislav Galic, who commands the Bosnian Serbs' Lukavica corps. Morillon said the size and firepower of the force at the roadblock indicated Galic must have sent it. "I consider him responsible," Morillon said.