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Bosnian Elections Reaffirm Massive Ethnic Divisions

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Under the watch of heavily armed NATO-led troops, Bosnians voted Saturday in chaotic but relatively peaceful elections that will shape the future of this ethnically riven country and the role of its international custodians.

Tens of thousands of war survivors crossed the Drina River from Yugoslavia, walked to polls or were bused to territory controlled by their wartime enemies to vote behind barbed wire, in artillery-pocked schoolhouses, in a rock quarry and, in one case, on the edge of a minefield.

But showing the mistrust and suspicion that linger, a lower-than-expected number of refugees dared to cross the ethnic lines that divide Bosnia-Herzegovina, and those who did were stunned to find they were not allowed to return to the homes from which they were expelled during the 3 1/2-year war.

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Despite upbeat assessments from U.S. officials, the flawed elections underscore the division that haunts Bosnia and bode ill for a future re-integration that U.S. sponsors of the flagging peace process hope will prevent renewed fighting.

In an immediate setback, the party of Bosnia’s Muslim-led government announced late Saturday that it will refuse to recognize results in the Bosnian Serb half of the country. The protest casts further doubt on the level of cooperation that will exist among Muslim, Croatian and Serbian leaders who must co-govern in a three-person presidency and a mixed legislature elected in Saturday’s vote.

“Irregularities and the lack of the necessary conditions for free and fair elections [required in the U.S.-brokered agreement that stopped the war] have deceitfully flawed the vote,” said the Party of Democratic Action, which is led by President Alija Izetbegovic.

A raft of procedural problems, glitches and severe delays dogged Saturday’s vote more than bloodshed--to the surprise of North Atlantic Treaty Organization commanders whose troops patrolled and protected the proceedings after weeks of specialized training geared to handling riots and mobs.

The anticipated traffic jams on Bosnia’s mountainous roads--some of which were dusted with snow early Saturday--did not materialize, and incidents were relatively mild for a country only just emerging from vicious war.

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Robert H. Frowick, the U.S. diplomat in charge of supervising the elections, for which no results were immediately available, reported a turnout of between 60% and 70%. But only 20,000 people crossed into Republika Srpska, as the Serbian half of the country is called, from the section controlled by the Muslim-Croat federation. About 4,000 went into Muslim-Croat territory, he said.

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Frowick judged the elections to be “almost entirely free of abuse” and “surprisingly incident-free.” Asked about the refusal of Izetbegovic’s party to recognize the results in Republika Srpska, Frowick said it was up to his Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to certify the results. He said all political parties had agreed to participate in the elections despite being fully aware that ideal political conditions did not exist.

“I really believe the elections were essential as a step toward trying to pull together joint [government] institutions at the highest level to give the concept of ‘Bosnia and Herzegovina’ a chance,” Frowick told a small group of reporters.

Raising again the prospect of U.S. diplomatic and military involvement in Bosnia beyond the Clinton administration’s formal yearlong pledge, Frowick said he firmly believes in continued international “strength” here.

“We have a base now on which to try to realize the promise of [the Dayton, Ohio, peace accord], and what would be essential is a strong ongoing commitment by the international community to ensure not only that it holds together but that the whole process deepens over these next two years to the next election and beyond,” Frowick said.

As for the troops safeguarding the voting, “It’s been kind of an anticlimactic day,” U.S. Army Col. John Batiste said, expressing relief. Turnout “is less than I expected. I really don’t understand it.”

Batiste, who commands a brigade that oversees some of the most tense Serb-held territory in northeastern Bosnia, was surveying the voting at a polling station outside the town of Novo Kasaba. Just 250 yards away lay a suspected mass grave of Muslims killed after the Bosnian Serb army overran the U.N.-protected “safe area” of Srebrenica in July 1995.

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Ibrahim Hodzic, whose two sons are still missing from the fall of Srebrenica, was among the 35 Muslim refugees who were bused past burned-out houses to the voting site. “I just want them [the Serbs] to let us come back,” the 64-year-old, said, weeping.

But Milorad Jovanovic, a Bosnian Serb election official handling Hodzic’s vote, said he was thankful the Muslims he regards as enemies were there to vote but not to stay.

“If I thought they were going to stay, I would be upset,” he said. “I saw 10 people I knew [among the Muslims who arrived to vote], but I did not talk to them. They killed my brother and waged war against us.”

International election organizers--acquiescing to a Bosnian Serb initiative co-signed by the Muslim-led government--for the most part prevented Muslim refugees from returning home and instead shuttled them to designated polling stations some distance from their villages.

A polling station for Srebrenica refugees, for example, was located about six miles south of the Serb-occupied city. Only one Muslim had ventured there to vote by late afternoon and was jeered by Bosnian Serb police, U.N. officials said.

Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader who has been indicted on war crimes charges, voted in his stronghold of Pale, outside the capital of Sarajevo, U.N. officials said. Despite an international arrest warrant against him, he evidently was not approached by NATO or other international authorities.

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Bosnian Serb officials appeared delighted by the way election day evolved, noting that they had successfully stopped attempts by Muslims to vote in their hometowns.

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Near the hard-line Bosnian Serb city of Zvornik, dozens of bewildered and angry Muslim refugees were bused to a stark rock quarry and required to vote inside two U.S. Army tents pitched on a muddy roadside.

Zaha Hodzic, a Muslim refugee from the tiny, razed village of Gornje Snagova, had dressed in her best outfit and jewelry because she thought she was going home to vote. She stood tearfully in line at the quarry--100 yards from her childhood home.

“I’m afraid to go farther,” she said, eyeing the Bosnian Serb police who stood between her and the road and who were posted along a ridge overlooking the sheer-faced quarry. “I had hoped at least to breathe the air of my homeland.”

Hodzic fled her village at the start of the war in April 1992 and escaped through the forests to the city of Tuzla. Her son, who she said had tried to negotiate with the attacking Serbs, was killed a few weeks later.

Nura Civic lost her entire family when her village was overrun. Saturday she was on the same bus with Hodzic and was similarly horrified that they had been brought to the site she once considered too dangerous for her children to play in because of rockslides from the craggy cliffs above.

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“We are not cattle,” she said. “We are civilized people. This is our country. It is not someone else’s. Until I can return home, I am like a foreigner.”

Unknown to Civic, parties led by the same ultranationalists who probably “ethnically cleansed” her village of Muslims--warlords-turned-politicians Arkan and Vojislav Seselj--were on the ballot she would receive at the polling booth.

Inside one of the voting tents, four bare lightbulbs hung from the ceiling and a generator hummed over the dirt and rock floor. Ballot boxes were inscribed in the Cyrillic alphabet used by Serbs; a Serbian flag had hung outside until international monitors complained.

American troops guarding the site supplied fresh-baked brownies, doughnuts, coffee and water for the voters.

Bosnian Serb refugees were also finding election day to be a tiresome exercise in manipulation. About 40,000 Serbs who live in neighboring Yugoslavia were bused to cities in eastern Bosnia to vote, sometimes to cities they had never lived in but where their votes would help solidify Bosnian Serb control.

“We were told to come here to vote,” Slobodanka Bozic, a refugee who had fled Tuzla, said in Zvornik. She and her friends were seated at the Peace Cafe, sipping coffee and overlooking the Drina River outside a polling station. “We would like to go back [home] to live, not just vote.”

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Saturday’s election was Bosnia’s first since a 1992 referendum on secession from the disintegrating Yugoslav federation plunged the country into a war that claimed more than 200,000 lives, displaced more than 2 million people and introduced the term “ethnic cleansing” into the world lexicon. All of the same nationalist parties that marched Bosnia into tragedy then are expected to win Saturday’s voting.

Among the most serious election violations reported were the stoning and turning back of refugee buses in a handful of cases; a hand-grenade attack on an election official in a Muslim town in western Bosnia; and the refusal of Serbs to open a polling station at the Kopace factory near the Muslim enclave of Gorazde.

Perhaps the biggest technical problem was the inability of many voters to find their names on voter-registration lists, which caused huge lines and delays in some places. Voting hours had to be extended late Saturday at about 100 sites because many people were prevented from casting ballots.

In Teslic in northern Bosnia, for example, voter lists were so flawed that Bosnian Serb election officials were desperately faxing names and identity card numbers to the OSCE office in Banja Luka, which then had to forward them to Sarajevo for verification. By late afternoon, the backlog was so great that only six of 200 verification requests had been processed. A line of problem voters filled the hallway outside the local election committee office, some of whom had traveled two days from Slovenia to vote in the Republika Srpska.

The problem was further complicated when it was decided not to allow Muslim voters left off the list to travel into Teslic to report their predicament. Instead, polling officials at Muslim-designated polling places corrected the names but by late afternoon still had no one to deliver them to Teslic.

“This is creating immense problems for us,” said Zdravko Popovic, the chairman of the local election committee. “People are getting angry and blaming us, but there is nothing more we can do.”

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Times staff writer Dean E. Murphy in Teslic contributed to this report.

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