US Bosnia Crackdown

To the relief of many, the Americans have decided to flex their political and military muscle in Bosnia

US Bosnia Crackdown

To the relief of many, the Americans have decided to flex their political and military muscle in Bosnia

The Bush administration may have mooted the idea of a Balkan withdrawal in recent months, but recent US actions on the ground in Bosnia suggest a renewed commitment to the region.

Over the last ten days, American troops have been involved in a crackdown on separatists and war crimes suspects alike. Coinciding with the visit of US Secretary of State Colin Powell, the action followed a long period of relative NATO inactivity in Bosnia.

Powell, who was making a tour of the Balkans, belongs to that part of the US administration advocating a continued and active presence in the region.

Three days after Powell's arrival, the NATO-led stabilization force, SFOR, arrested Dragan Obrenovic, a Bosnian Serb war crimes suspect. He was charged with atrocities in eastern Bosnia. "Let today's arrest serve as a warning to those with guilty consciences," read a NATO press statement.

Two days later, SFOR troops stormed the headquarters of Hercegovacka Banka in west Mostar. The bank is believed to be the financial backbone of hardliners aiming to establish a separate, Croat entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

It was SFOR's second attempt to force their way into the bank. The first ended in chaos with several western officials beaten by angry protestors. This time, eager to avoid any further embarrassment, they descended with scores of tanks and armored vehicles, blockading most of the city.

Troops secured crucial documents expected to prove that the bank - established by senior officials of the Croat Democratic Union, HDZ, - transferred huge sums to secure the loyalty of key Bosnian Croat military, police and intelligence officers.

The SFOR action marks a shift in the international community's soft-handed approach to Bosnian crises.

This latest one was precipitated when HDZ organized an ad hoc referendum on the creation of a separate Bosnian Croat state, on the same day as general elections last November. As a result, member of the Bosnian tripartite presidency and the then head of the HDZ nationalist party, Ante Jelavic, was fired by High Representative Wolfgang Petritsch.

The sacking of Jelavic and two other senior HDZ officials was the only real course of action open to Petritsch.

Had they attempted to ignore or negotiate with the hardliners, the credibility of the international community in Bosnia would have been destroyed along with that of the newly elected moderate Alliance For Change government.

HDZ leaders claim publicly that the aim of their action is to protect the rights of Bosnian-Croats. But many observers see it as a last-ditch attempt to maintain a modicum of power following the election of moderates to most senior state and federal positions last November.

Several western diplomats have commented that the recent Bosnian-Croat "uprising" was a well-planned operation carried out with the collusion of the HDZ party in Croatia.

The same sources also claim HDZ leaders had involved in secret talks with their Serb counterparts in the Serb Democratic Party, SDS. Naturally, such talk raises fears of renewed discussions aimed at ethnic division of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The spectre of an ethnically partitioned Bosnia was doubtless aided by US President George Bush pre-election pledge to reduce US involvement in the Balkans.

Bearing in mind it was the US which played the key role in bringing the Bosnian war to an end, any lessening of its commitment to the region could be interpreted by nationalist hardliners, not just in Bosnia but across the Balkans, as a green light for pursuing their separatist goals.

On taking office, the Bush team back-tracked on Bosnia. It seems there has been a fierce debate in the US administration between a State Department urging a continued presence in Balkans and a Defense Department advocating a gradual withdrawal, with the former, for the moment, winning the argument.

Powell's visit to assuage fears of US withdrawal from the region coincided with Montenegrin elections, seen as a prelude to an independence referendum. The US is opposed to such a move, not least because it would bolster Kosovo's claims for independence.

Powell's pledges of continuing political and military involvement in the region, as well as the events which took place in Bosnia around the time of his visit, came at a very crucial moment.

Although many here welcome the commitment of Powell and US Bosnian ambassador Thomas Miller, the views of the US Defense Department remain an overriding concern.

Janez Kovac is a regular IWPR contributor

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