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Bosnia Refugee Problem Growing Volatile

By Patrick Whalen

Prague, April 26 (RFE/RL) - The problem of returning refugees in Bosnia is growing volatile, with fights between rival ethnic groups becoming more frequent even as the country's armed factions withdraw to barracks.

Yesterday, hundreds of Muslim refugees and Serb civilians clashed near Tuzla in northern Bosnia. Both sides hurled rocks at each other, and two explosions were heard, before NATO-led peace implementation forces were able to restore order. At least one Muslim refugee was reported injured in the incident.

On Wednesday, several hundred Serb refugees tried to visit their former homes in Glamoc in western Bosnia, but turned back after Croat civilians massed to meet them. The refugees said they feared a possible clash after Croat police did not provide security guarantees.

And in two separate incidents last weekend, Serb crowds threw stones at refugees who tried to cross into Serb territory to visit former homes. Serbs were also reported to have blocked a group of Croats who wanted to visit a cemetery in Bosanski Brod.

International aid workers and NATO officials say these incidents illustrate one of the biggest threats to the Dayton peace accords. They say the incidents have been provoked by both Serb and Muslim-Croat leaders, who - despite the risk of bloodshed and renewed war - are once again inflaming ethnic divisions, this time in bids to solidify their power ahead of Bosnia's scheduled autumn elections.

The incidents also illustrate one of the most serious shortcomings so far of the effort to restore peace to Bosnia: The failure of the international community, and of the leaders of Bosnia's three factions, to reverse the wartime practice of ethnic cleansing by ensuring freedom of movement and the return of refugees, as spelled out in the Dayton accords.

The international community is well aware of the potential danger, particulary as tens of thousands more Bosnian refugees are expected to try to return to their homes over the remainder of the spring and summer. Ry Ryan, a spokesman for the United Nations' refugee agency, acknowledged yesterday that Bosnia was, in his words, "next to nowhere" in ensuring freedom of movement. He added that the country is likely to become thoroughly partioned along ethnic lines unless pressure is applied to change the situation.

Other analysts (unidentified) have been more blunt, suggesting that unless freedom of movement and the return of refugees can be guaranteed, any Bosnian elections will be a sham - an outcome that could reinforce ethnic splits and lead to another round of war.

All of Bosnia's factions have been accused of exploiting the refugee issue to for political gains. The ruling Party of Democratic Action of Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, for example, has sponsored several recent demonstrations, including a military march, in a bid to win the support of refugees angered by the loss of their homes. The Muslim-Croat federation has also organized demonstrations.

Meanwhile, Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb civilian leader, yesterday accused Muslim leaders of trying to provoke Serbs to war by encouraging Muslim refugees to settle in Serb areas. And Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serbs' military chief, has accused NATO of siding with Muslim and Croat refugees during recent clashes with Serbs. Both men have been indicted for war crimes, but they remain influential among Bosnian Serbs. Analysts say their actions on refugees and other issues could have unpredictable consequences.

NATO officials have so far been adamant that alliance-led forces not get deeply involved in refugee issues, arguing that such questions need to be addressed by the Bosnians themselves. NATO has instead focussed on demobilizing nearly all of Bosnia's soliders and heavy weapons - making Bosnia, on the surface at least, a safer place. Ironically, though, these efforts have also helped to create an environment where fresh outbreaks of potentially disastrous inter-ethnic civilian conflict are more likely.