SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — The killing of a policeman by a Muslim gunman prompted Bosnian Serb leaders on Tuesday to renew calls for independence from the federation forged in a U.S.-brokered peace deal in 1995. That’s dangerous talk in the Balkans, whose economically depressed states are rife with ethnic rivalries and border disputes that could explode at any moment.
After all, it was in Bosnia that an assassination 100 years ago set off World War I.
In Monday’s attack in the Bosnian Serb town of Zvornik, a man stormed into a police station shouting “Allahu akbar,” which is the Arabic phrase for “God is great,” and opened fire, killing a Serb policeman and wounding two other officers.
The gunman was also killed in the shootout, which instantly raised tensions in Bosnia, a Balkan state still reeling two decades after the end of a war between Christian Orthodox Serbs, Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats that killed 100,000 people and deeply divided the country along ethnic lines.
The attack came only a week after a group of 40 masked gunmen forcibly took over a police station in a Macedonian border village, calling themselves members of the Kosovo Liberation Army that fought for independence from Serbia in the late 1990s. The attackers declare they were forming an independent state in Macedonia, another former member of Yugoslavia.
The two incidents illustrate how fragile peace really is in the Balkans after the 1991-95 war, which started with calls of independence from the former Yugoslav regions to break away from the Serb-led federation.
The 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement ended the worst bloodshed in Europe since World War II and divided Bosnia into two autonomous regions, one for Serbs and the other shared by Bosniaks and Croats. The regions are linked by a weak central government, parliament and presidency.
In the wake of Monday’s attack, the Bosnian Serb leader, who has been pushing for independence for the Serb region of Bosnia, said the country’s central institutions are “useless” and Bosnian Serbs should form their own intelligence service.
“This was a shot against Republika Srpska (the Bosnian Serb mini-state) and we have the right to defend ourselves and we will,” Milorad Dodik said.
A similar call was made by the Bosnian Serbs in 1992, which triggered their armed rebellion against Bosnia’s referendum for independence and in favor of forming a pan-Serbian state in the Balkans.
Bosnia has a national army, consisting of all three ethnic groups under a single command. But it has two separate police forces, one for the Bosniaks and Croats, and the other for Bosnian Serbs. Both forces are coordinated by the Ministry of Security.
In theory, Dodik could mobilize his own force, drawing from his region’s police officers and other fighters who might support the idea of secession from Bosnia. But that would be a serious violation of the Dayton agreement.
Emir Suljagic, from the Bosnian Democratic Front Party, said, “those who are trying to cynically use this event for gaining political points should be cautious and learn from the lessons of the past when major violence started with big words.”
Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic struck a more conciliatory stand on Tuesday, saying Bosnia’s stability has to be preserved and that Serbian and Bosnian security services must cooperate “in order to prevent provocations like this in the future.”
“Risks of similar attacks are high in our region, most of all from the radical Islamist movement,” he said.
On Tuesday, Bosnian police arrested two men with suspected links to the gunman in Zvornik.
New details begun to emerge about the gunman, identified as 24-year-old Nerdin Ibric, with residents from his village saying his father was taken away by Serbs in 1992 at the start of Bosnia’s brutal multi-ethnic war and never seen again. Local media reported that Serb police rounded up the father along with 750 Muslims from the town and killed them all.
One of the suspects taken into custody on Tuesday is known to police and has been questioned in the past for possible Syria ties and recruitment efforts for the Islamic State group, Bosnian Serb police chief Dragan Lukac said.
Zvornik, located on the border with Serbia, was about 60-percent Muslim before the start of Bosnia’s1992-95 war. Almost all Muslim residents were expelled from the town, and many were rounded up and killed as part of a Serb campaign to create a purely Serb area.
Bosnian security analyst Goran Kovacevic said, “This country is living in an atmosphere of war.”
“All the people now in power emerged during the war,” he said. “Even 20 years later, they base their politics on war rhetoric and spread fear.”
Dusan Stojanovic reported from Belgrade, Serbia. Irena Knezevic in Banja Luka, and Radul Radovanovic in Kucic Kula, contributed to this report.
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