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U.S. Troops Yield TV Transmitter to Bosnian Serbs

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Surrounded by stick-wielding Bosnian Serbs, U.S. troops agreed Tuesday to relinquish a television transmitter they had controlled to forces answering to war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic.

In exchange, the Serbs, under the direction of Karadzic ally Momcilo Krajisnik, promised to end inflammatory anti-West rhetoric and permit opposition voices on the air.

Krajisnik, the Bosnian Serb member of the country’s three-man presidency, praised the deal as a “wise” step by NATO-led peacekeepers to avoid conflict with the Serbs. Others wondered if the Americans had blinked, having been embarrassed by last week’s bungling of a military operation to take over pro-Karadzic police stations.

Adding insult to injury, the newly restored television transmission was used Tuesday night to cancel Serbian participation in crucial municipal elections scheduled for Sept. 13-14.

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The transmitter, on a hilltop in northeastern Bosnia-Herzegovina, was seized by U.S. troops last week as part of a campaign to shore up Karadzic foe Biljana Plavsic, the president of the Bosnian Serbs’ Republika Srpska. But the troops had since become targets of more than 200 angry, stone-hurling Serbs.

The media and the police are the two central tools in the battle to gain and hold on to power in this part of the world. Last week, U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops tried to install Plavsic forces in police stations in three cities and two towns, and to take the transmitter, which is near the city of Bijeljina.

In all three cities, the operation failed and police loyal to Karadzic and his hard-line coterie remained in charge; in one city, Brcko, angry crowds blocked and attacked U.S. forces in an ugly melee broadcast the world over. And with Tuesday’s agreement, the transmitter reverted to Karadzic’s allies.

Karadzic, indicted by an international war crimes tribunal on genocide charges, is locked in a power struggle with Plavsic, his onetime partner. She accuses him and his inner circle of corruption and of enriching themselves while most Bosnian Serbs languish in poverty.

For the last several months, the Clinton administration has pursued a more aggressive course of action in Bosnia, signaling a determination to isolate Karadzic by promoting Plavsic. But in the last week, faced with their first military challenge, U.S. efforts have crashed--with negative consequences on military, diplomatic and political fronts.

Plavsic, after making important gains in the northwestern portion of Republika Srpska, has lost momentum and stalled. The U.S. military has appeared weak to the Serbs, making future confrontations more likely.

And an always precarious unity within the international peacemaking mission here has been shattered. European and other international allies believe that Washington is forcing its agenda through with little laying of political groundwork and with disregard for legal backing.

The transmitter was crucial because it controlled television signals to key, disputed cities in Republika Srpska. With the U.S. takeover of the tower Thursday, inflammatory rhetoric that Bosnian Serb hard-liners had been using to incite violence against Western peacekeepers could not reach those cities.

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On Monday, crowds of Bosnian Serbs, bused in and directed by men with walkie-talkies, began surrounding the heavily armed U.S. troops, who encircled the transmitter and built barricades. The mobs, which swelled to around 250 people, hurled stones and insults until the troops fired tear gas to subdue the onslaught.

Still armed with sticks and wooden clubs, and consuming plenty of plum brandy, the Serbs staged a kind of sit-in around the Americans overnight and well into Tuesday morning. They finally dispersed later Tuesday, NATO spokesmen said, after troops permitted four Bosnian Serb police officers and three technicians from Karadzic-controlled television to enter the transmitting station.

On Tuesday night, the signal from the hard-line camp was again on the air in cities like Brcko and Bijeljina, which Plavsic and Karadzic forces continue to dispute.

International officials said the decision to take and then surrender the transmitter came from NATO’s supreme commander, U.S. Gen. Wesley Clark, who has taken an unusually hands-on approach to Bosnia since assuming the top NATO military post in July.

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The compromise was struck between Krajisnik and Clark’s representative in Bosnia, U.S. Army Gen. Eric Shinseki, in the wee hours of Tuesday morning. Krajisnik promised that the Bosnian Serb television and radio (SRT) will refrain from inflammatory language against NATO and international peacekeepers and will give an hour a day in programming time to opposition politicians. Also, the Serbs agreed to participate in a newly formed media advisory commission and give the senior civilian peacekeeping official in Bosnia air time to explain recent events.

The hard-line Bosnian Serb leadership has signed and then ignored similar agreements in the past. On Tuesday night’s SRT news broadcast, the station’s director, Miroslav Toholj, congratulated the demonstrators who had confronted the U.S. forces at the Bijeljina transmitter, lauding their “bravery” and “defense of human rights.”

Krajisnik, relieved that pressure seemed to be abating, said he was glad “more calm winds” prevailed.

And on the same newscast, Bosnian Serb Prime Minister Gojko Klickovic said fraudulent voter registration that has allowed Muslims to outnumber Serbs in some Serb-held cities will prevent Bosnian Serbs from participating in the elections.

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