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Violence Expected as Refugees Return Home
Warning Shots Fired as Serbs Block Muslims
SARAJEVO, April 20 (Reuters) — NATO-led peace forces in Bosnia are scrambling to cope with an anticipated surge in potentially violent incidents as families displaced by war try to return to their homes across ethnic lines. A platoon of Czech peace forces was forced to fire warning shots into the air on Friday to disperse a crowd of Muslims anxious to return to their homes in Serb-held territory and the Serbs who blocked them, NATO said. The incident occurred north of a bridge at Otoka, near the dividing line between Bosnia's Muslim-Croat federation and its Serb republic, an internal boundary which is supposed to be open to the free flow of people and goods, including refugees.

NATO has encouraged Bosnia's three formerly warring armies back to barracks and onto a peacetime footing just as the prospect of running skirmishes between groups of returning refugees and opposing ethnic groups presents itself. "The legitimate movement of people back to their homes across the boundary between opposing entities is becoming more of a security problem," acknowledged NATO spokesman Major Simon Haselock. "We have a responsibility to protect the movement of populations under the Dayton peace accord. UNHCR (U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees) is the lead agency on this but we provide security if UNHCR want it and request it."

Haselock hastened to add that non-UNHCR sanctioned population movements, especially provocative demonstrations and confrontations such as those which erupted in Otoka on Friday put civilians, refugee workers and peace force troops at risk. Refugees from all three sides in the Bosnian war — Muslim, Croat and Serb — have been largely frustrated in their attempts to return home across ethnic lines, despite being guaranteed that right in the Dayton peace agreement.

UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond complained in Geneva on Friday that none of the parties were honoring their obligations under the Dayton accord with regard to refugees and displaced persons. "In signing the Dayton agreement each of the signatories committed their government to ensure freedom of movement across the inter-entity boundary line and through the territory of the federation and the Republika Srbska," Redmond said. "But in practice these commitments have not been met by any of the parties."

Half of Bosnia's Population Displaced
Refugee workers estimate that half of Bosnia's pre-war population of 4.2 million was displaced during the country's 43-month war. Dayton carved the country into three largely ethnically homogenous areas which refugees and displaced persons are finding virtually impossible to penetrate.

The onset of warmer weather and NATO's very success in getting Bosnia's standing armies out of the trenches and back to barracks have opened the way for civilian confrontations along ethnic dividing lines. Analysts predict that Muslim, Serb and Croat leaders will test NATO's commitment to freedom of movement and refugee returns by staging provocative confrontations in an effort to build political support ahead of coming national elections.

While NATO acknowledges a security responsibility for returning refugees it is adamant its troops will not get sucked into a massive internal security exercise. "What we saw on Friday near Otoka was primarily a civil disturbance which built out of a issue of freedom of movement," said a NATO officer who asked not to be named. "(The NATO ground Commander) takes a very dim view of this incident and has raised the matter with interior ministers of the factions."

Additional resources
U.N. Warns of Conflicts over Homecomings
Going Home Portrait of a returning Refugee by Chester King Vega
Refugee: Wandering Bosnia Without a Home by Chester King Vega
RefWorld Databases of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

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