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Bosnian Serb Crowds Harass U.S. Forces

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 29, 1997 – White House officials warned Bosnian leaders to back off after about 1,000 Bosnian Serb civilians attacked U.S. troops Aug. 28 in the town of Brcko.

"We will hold the parties' leadership responsible for keeping their people under control," White House Deputy Press Secretary Joe Lockhart said at Martha's Vineyard, Mass., where President Clinton is vacationing. Lockhart said Clinton is briefed daily on the situation in Bosnia. "We're continuing to work with both sides, and we won't tolerate either side inciting people loyal to their particular position to incite any violence against the SFOR troops," he said.

The 350 U.S. troops, part of the NATO Stabilization Force, were supporting U.N. International Police Task Force authorities who tried to inspect a civil police station in Brcko. The town has been the scene of an internal fight between Bosnian Serb groups loyal to different leaders, Lockhart said.

Sirens blared across the town, and the local radio station incited people to defend the station. A crowd gathered and following the outnumbered, withdrawing SFOR troops, threw rocks, bottles and Molotov cocktails and struck the soldiers with two-by-fours, said Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Mike Doubleday . SFOR troops fired warning shots three times, and when that failed to disperse the crowd, they used tear gas.

Two U.S. soldiers were injured, Doubleday said. One was treated after being struck in the head with a two-by-four with a nail in it. He was treated on the scene and returned to duty. A second, also hit by a two-by-four, was hospitalized with a broken nose, concussion and lacerations over his eye.

"Everybody is aware that anytime you get soldiers deployed into an area where there are conflicting parties, there is the potential for violence, Doubleday said. "What we have done in this case is we have taken very good steps, very prudent steps, every deliberative steps that make sure our troops enjoy the best possible protection."

The attempted U.N. inspection was one of a series in Brcko and five other towns and the first to turn violent, Doubleday said. Earlier in August, U.N. authorities uncovered evidence civil police forces were engaging in criminal activities and human rights abuses. U.S. aviation units supported NATO troops Aug. 20 when the U.N. police task force raided five police facilities in Banja Luka and netted 3,000 illegal weapons.

Under the Dayton agreement, the U.N. International Police Task Force oversees the restructuring, training and equipping of local police. The U.N. authorities are unarmed, so they request SFOR support when the potential for trouble exists.

"The primary role of SFOR troops is to maintain a safe and secure environment to enable other international organizations to do their job in Bosnia," Doubleday told Pentagon reporters. "We are not parties to a conflict. We are not involved in any kind of war in this case."

The 35,000 U.S. troops participating in the SFOR peacekeeping operation are trained and prepared to deal with civil unrest, Doubleday said. Under SFOR's rules of engagement, deployed troops are authorized to respond appropriately when they feel they are being threatened, he said.

"We are not there to make a situation worse; we are there to calm a situation," Doubleday said. "I think the steps these troops took were very prudent. They fired warning shots. They finally used the riot control agents. This is indicative of the kinds of training that individuals go through who are going to be put into these situations."

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