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Bosnia's Odd 'Magic Kingdom'

HARD-LINE HAVEN

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To some NATO peacekeeping troops, this Alpine village is known as "the Magic Kingdom."

Indeed, viewed from afar this sweep of cloud-wreathed peaks and majestic forests seems to enfold Pale in a fairy-tale-like aura. But the sobriquet refers not to the scenery. It is a sarcastic dig at the bleak reality of the crumbling roads, idle factories, destitute refugees, and omnipresent warlordism that lie beneath the vista.

Once an obscure way station en route to the ski slopes that played host to the 1984 Winter Olympics, Pale has become synonymous around the world with Bosnian Serb extremism.

It was from Pale - just east of Sarajevo - that Radovan Karadzic and his lieutenants presided over the brutal 43-month campaign for a pure Serb state that ended when NATO air strikes compelled them to accept the 1995 plan brokered in Dayton, Ohio, for reconciliation with Bosnia-Herzegovina's Muslims and Croats.

Pale is now effectively a prison for Mr. Karadzic, with NATO units posted on its fringes with orders to arrest him on war-crimes charges should he stray too far from his heavily guarded home. Sporadic overflights in the depths of night by low-flying NATO helicopters equipped with powerful search lights keep his nerves - and those of Pale's other residents - ajangle.

Karadzic's wartime offices in the drab Hotel Panorama are now occupied by his closest associates. It is from this hillside hostelry that they have been fighting since July to defend their political power and smuggling rackets against a former colleague, Biljana Plavsic. Her crusade for change is being backed by the United States and its allies as the best chance for keeping Bosnia at peace.

Washington's tolerance of Pale appears to have reached an end following Aug. 28 attacks by Bosnian Serb mobs on American troops on the northern town of Brcko. NATO authorized its Stabilization Force (SFOR) to close the pro-Karadzic media Pale used to incite the unrest. US special envoy Robert Gelbard ended a weekend visit to the village by warning that the consequences of the hard-liners persistent refusal to abide by the Dayton accords "would be the most serious imaginable."

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