UN officials have expressed surprise and alarm at mob violence that disrupted two ceremonies which were to mark the reconstruction of mosques destroyed in Bosnia's war. International officials had hoped the ceremonies would symbolize the interethnic reconciliation underway in Bosnia, but instead the disruptions signaled the challenges still facing the rehabilitation of the country. RFE/RL's UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.
United Nations, 8 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The disruption of two ceremonies intended to signal the reconciliation process among Bosnia's ethnic groups has provoked alarm among the international monitors overseeing the country's peace process.
A crowd of several thousand Bosnian Serbs in Banja Luka yesterday (7 May) broke through a police cordon and disrupted a ceremony to mark the reconstruction of the historic 16th-century Ferhadija mosque.
The mob threw stones and attacked Muslims as well as international officials attending the ceremony, setting afire at least three buses and a Muslim bakery. Hundreds of people were trapped for several hours in the compound of Banja Luka's Islamic center, including the top UN envoy in Bosnia, Jacques Klein, as well as ambassadors from Britain, Sweden, and Pakistan.
One stone also destroyed the windshield of the car carrying Bosnia's foreign minister, Zlatko Lagumdzija. Bosnian Serb police eventually escorted the people in the compound to safety and the crowd dispersed by evening.
Klein later told reporters that Bosnian Serb Prime Minister Mladen Ivanic came to the Islamic center and organized the evacuation.
UN spokesman Fred Eckhard's comments to reporters in New York echoed the response of the main international agencies engaged in the Bosnian peace process:
"The UN mission condemned the incident, which directly threatens the reconciliation and return process in Bosnia."
In addition to Klein, there were strong reactions from the international community's top representative in Bosnia, Wolfgang Petritsch, the head of mission in Bosnia for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the U.S. ambassador in Bosnia.
They all called for Bosnian Serb authorities to investigate the rampage and find those responsible for organizing it.
Petritsch criticized the Serb authorities for not providing adequate security for the occasion and failing to "to live up to their commitment to protect religious freedom."
Bosnia's new ambassador to the United Nations, Husein Zivalj, was also critical of the security measures taken by Bosnian Serb police. He told RFE/RL there should have been heightened security following the 5 May incident in the southern town of Trebinje. In a similar disturbance there, Serb nationalists forced the postponement of a ground-breaking ceremony for the reconstruction of a mosque.
Zivalj, who represents both the Muslim-Croat and Bosnian Serb entities at the UN, called for renewed international pressure on Bosnian Serb officials to create safer conditions for minorities.
"I hope that the presence of all ambassadors -- I'm talking [about the] ambassadors in Sarajevo, in Banja Luka -- will somehow gain at least the attention of those countries which are directly involved in the implementation of the Dayton Peace agreement to do something against all those who didn't do anything to stop [the mob violence]."
News reports from the scene of the Banja Luka disturbance said the Serb protestors took away prayer rugs from Muslims and set them on fire. The reports said the Serbs played nationalistic songs and chanted the name of Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb leader who has been indicted as a war criminal by the international tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
Yesterday's events caused shock and embarrassment for Bosnian officials because of relatively steady progress they were said to be making in implementing the Dayton Peace accords, which ended the Bosnian civil war in 1995.
Klein and Petritsch have said in recent reports to the UN Security Council that there has been a gradual moderation of the country's political leaders. They pointed to rising numbers of returning ethnic minorities as reason for hope that reconciliation among the warring sides was gaining strength.
International officials had pressed for the reconstruction of mosques destroyed during the Bosnian war to try to build on the reconciliation process.
But Zivalj, the Bosnian UN ambassador, faults the international community for acting too slowly in some areas, such as the detention of indicted war criminals. He says the apprehension of Karadzic and former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic are crucial to stabilizing the situation in Bosnia.
Zivalj also says that hundreds of thousands of Bosnians remain displaced out of concern for their safety should they return to their former homes.
"We have to do some things in a more robust and vigorous way, especially [removing] all those who are indicted as war criminals. It doesn't matter which side, Bosnian Muslim or Croats or Serbs or others."
Banja Luka is the main city in the Bosnian Serb entity and moderates were believed to be gaining in influence there. News reports said yesterday's ceremony was disrupted by Serbs from the city as well as from other parts of the entity.
Bosnia's NATO-led peacekeeping force, known as SFOR, has increased its presence near the mosque site in Banja Luka. A journalist for Reuters said up to 30 SFOR armored personnel carriers and four tanks were stationed not far from the site.