BANJA LUKA, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Bosnian Serb leaders have held the biggest celebrations ever to mark the Day Of Republika Srpska, a disputed “statehood day” in the Bosnian Serb entity that has been banned by Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Constitutional Court.
Events on January 9 in Banja Luka, the administrative center of the Bosnian Serb entity, included a parade with hundreds of police officers armed with automatic weapons, firefighters, prison guards, war veterans, and members of sport clubs and the Civil Protection force.
Republika Srpska's nationalist leader, President Milorad Dodik, used the occasion to call for more Serb autonomy within Bosnia.
"The Serb people have two states -- Serbia and Republika Srpska -- and we want to be one," said Dodik, who has repeatedly claimed that the Serbs' long-term goal is secession from the rest of Bosnia.
The January 9 holiday marks the date in 1992 when the Bosnian Serbs declared the founding of Republika Srpska.
Preparations have gone ahead despite objections from international officials and Bosniak political leaders who see the creation of Republika Srpska as the prelude to Bosnia’s 1992-95 war that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia.
Bosnia’s Constitutional Court ruled in November 2015 that the statehood holiday was discriminatory against non-Serbs in Republika Srpska because it is also a Serbian Orthodox religious holiday -- the day of the entity’s patron saint, St. Stephen.
Authorities in Republika Srpska held a referendum in September 2016, which also was ruled illegal by the Constitutional Court, to seek public support for the holiday.
In December 2016, Republika Srpska’s parliament passed a law stipulating that January 9 is a secular holiday and that the entity’s government will decide how it is celebrated.
The United States and the European Union oppose the statehood holiday.
Recipients of awards handed out in Banja Luka on January 9 included former Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic.
Serbia's defense and interior ministers, Aleksandar Vulin and Nebojsa Stefanovic, also joined the celebrations, along with a handful of other international guests including Anatoly Bibilov, the de facto leader of Georgia’s breakaway, Russian-backed South Ossetia region.
There was an increased police presence early on January 9 in Banja Luka, where the city center was closed to vehicle traffic.
Decorations for the event have been in place for weeks.
One poster features a photograph of Republika Srpska's nationalist leader, President Milorad Dodik, alongside its wartime leader Radovan Karadzic, whose appeal against his genocide conviction is pending.
Bosnia's 1992-1995 war between its Croats, Bosniaks, and Serbs resulted in the death of an estimated 100,000 people and the displacement of some 2.6 million more.
As part of the 1995 Dayton accords that mostly ended the violence, Bosnia was broken into two constituent states: a Muslim-Croat federation and Republika Srpska.
With reporting by Balkan Insight and AFP