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NATO Frets: Bosnians Can't Go Home Again

Former foes are keeping displaced from returning to homes

Ensuring freedom of movement is fast becoming the principal mission of American-led peace forces in Bosnia, as rival ethnic groups physically and sometimes violently prevent each other from crossing former lines of confrontation.

Though freedom of movement for all Bosnians is guaranteed by the Dayton peace plan, a series of orchestrated demonstrations in the past week have led to stonings and beatings, requiring the NATO peace Implementation Force (IFOR) troops to fire into the air to separate angry crowds.

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NATO commanders and UN officials say that the clashes have been organized by leaders of Bosnia's Muslim, Croat, and Serb groups to "prove" that the factions can't live together in peace, and to increase support for hard-line nationalist policies.

Freedom of movement is among the most important aspects of the peace agreement, because it paves the way for about 2 million displaced people and refugees - more than half of Bosnia's pre-war population - to return to their homes.

Elections are due before mid-September, but Bosnians of all ethnic groups are being thwarted by former rivals from returning home to the areas from which they are to cast their ballots.

"We clearly understand and support the right of individuals to return to their pre-war homes," said IFOR spokesman Maj. Simon Haselock. "[But] we are concerned by what seems to be a cynical attempt to manipulate the legitimate concerns of people about their property and homesteads for narrow, local ends. We are not going to become a rent-a-crowd-control organization."

Boisterous crowds of several hundred Serbs last weekend blocked a group of as many Muslims - who were reportedly led by local Bosnian government officials and plainclothes policemen - from entering Serb-held territory at a bridge near of Doboj in northeast Bosnia. Nordic IFOR troops diffused a violent confrontation by firing into the air and separating the two groups.

Another incident occurred on Wednesday in the western town of Glamoc, which was recaptured from Serbs by Croat forces in mid-1995. Some 600 Serbs tried to return to visit old homes and family graves but were blocked by Croat police. Six hours of negotiations failed, as a crowd of hundreds of Croats gathered in the center of the town and the Orthodox Serb cemetery to give an unsavory "welcome" to any Serbs who might get through the cordon.

The Croat civilians carried anti-Serb banners. One Serb woman turned back, reportedly laid a flower wreath and left a traditional candle at the Croat checkpoint anyway.

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"If we can't go to the graveyard, we'll light our candles here," she said. "A shame on them."

Faction leaders bristled at IFOR accusations that they had engineered the confrontations for political gain.

"We will organize the return of our people to their homes, and we don't see anything wrong in it," said Bosnian Prime Minister Hasan Muratovic. "They have the right under the Dayton agreement to return, but there is no tool for it."

Bosnian Serb military chief Gen. Ratko Mladic, who has been indicted by the War Crimes tribunal in The Hague and normally keeps a low profile, accused IFOR of bias and of wounding two Serbs at Doboj.

There would be "spontaneous revenge by Serb civilians in case of further such incidents," General Mladic warned. "This represents a serious violation of the peace mission and the principle of non-bias."

But IFOR and UN officials place blame on the leaders themselves. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees notes that 9 out of 10 requests they make for people to be allowed to cross former confrontation lines for visits are turned down.

"Such visits are our priority," says spokesman Ron Redmond. "This is the only way to build confidence. Theoretically there should be freedom of movement, but tensions are high on both sides."

In the face of these obstacles, the UNHCR asks, how could 2 million people possibly be repatriated, as required by the accord?

ALREADY four months into the year-long peace mission, the primary IFOR military mandate - separation of warring parties, demilitarization of front lines, and withdrawal of troops and hardware to barracks - has been achieved. For the first time in four years of war, there are no preparations for a spring offensive in Bosnia.

But the IFOR mandate also requires creation of a safe environment for returnees and for holding of elections. IFOR commanders so far have been reluctant to take on police duties, though on the ground the troops are increasingly being called upon to ensure safe passage.

NATO commander Adm. Leighton Smith has written to Bosnia's faction leaders telling them how "very dangerous" the manipulation of refugees was for peace in Bosnia. NATO generals this week said they would maintain the peace force at 60,000 until after the vote, hoping that the presence will keep a lid on further unrest.

The election will test the principle of freedom of movement and how ready Bosnians are to live together again. Ambassador Robert Fowick, the American diplomat responsible for organizing the election, was asked this week how close Bosnia had come to the goal of an open political and ethnic society since the end of the war.

"We're a long way from scoring," he said.

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