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Reconciliation stumbles over a stone

By Cpl. Sébastien Pisani
First published in
SFOR Informer#113, May 16, 2001

Violent demonstrations prevented the groundbreaking ceremony for the reconstruction of the main mosque in Banja Luka May 7. SFOR had not been engaged but was permanently ready for intervention if necessary.

Banja Luka - Visitors are quite rare at Banja Luka CIMIC House. Two British Warriors are parked on the opposite pavement May 7. In a neighbouring garden, the platoon commanded by 2nd Lt. Harry Torrance, from the B Company of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Green Jackets, is waiting for orders.

Freshly arrived in BiH, the men exchange some information. "The ceremony should begin at 11.30 a.m.," one of them said to his companions. Eyes looked up suddenly toward the sky. Behind the Canadian Griffin, which flew in circles over the capital of Republika Srpska (RS), thick black smoke was rising in the sky. "A vehicle has been set on fire," Torrance announced. A silence fell on the small group.

Same scenario in Trebinje
The ceremony of laying the groundwork for the reconstruction of a mosque in Trebinje (Republika Srpska) planned for May 5 has also been cancelled because of a demonstration organised by several hundreds of Bosnian-Serbs. Stones and bottles prevented the laying of the first stone of this monument. Police were quickly outflanked by the crowd, which threw projectiles at local authorities, delegation and members of the international community. These confrontations caused several persons to be wounded, among whom the special envoy of the high representative, Daniel Ruiz. The International Police Task Force (IPTF) opened an inquiry to determine why the local police were not able to initially contain the demonstrators.

Hundreds of metres from there in the town centre, over 3,000 Bosnian-Serb demonstrators gathered; their aim was to prevent the ground-breaking ceremony during which the first stone of the Ferhadija would be laid. The Ferhadija was a XVIth century mosque destroyed in 1993.

"According to its mandate, SFOR is ready to intervene to maintain a safe and secure environment. SFOR troops have been reinforced with 130 soldiers of the S Company of the Royal Green Jackets from Mrkonjic-Grad and four platoons of Multinational Specialised Unit (MSU)," said Lt. Col. Worsley, commander of the British Battle Group. About 400 local policemen maintained security on the square where the ceremony should have taken place.
Damaged vehicles
At about 11:40 a.m., under pressure of demonstrators, officials found refuge in the Islamic community building. Among them were, notably, the Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG) of the United Nations Jacques-Paul Klein, the American Ambassador to BiH Thomas Miller, and the chief of mission of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Werner Blatter.

344 Bosniacs received
in Metal Factory

SFOR actively participated in the evacuation of people who had been trapped at the Islamic community building along with members of the international community. Some 344 Bosniacs who were supposed to attend the ceremony were evacuated to the SFOR base in Banja Luka (Metal Factory) at approximately 2:30 p.m. where they were given food, shelter and medical care. Three buses used by the Bosniacs were repaired to transport them to their home location.

Outside, stones and bottles damaged shop windows and vehicles. The Czech helicopter sent to the spot to extract guests surrounded in the Islamic community building tried to land, but it had to turn back because the operation was made risky by the presence of the hostile crowd.
Late in the afternoon, demonstrators moved off after action by the RS police Special Forces. The siege of the building ended finally at about 6.30 p.m., when all the persons had been evacuated by the police. The RS Prime Minister Mladen Ivanic, who had joined the besieged to protect them, was a part of the group.

"We were in contact with the police, with a senior military officer located in the police headquarters. The situation in Banja Luka was a police issue. It would be inappropriate for us to not allow the police to fulfil their duties, responsibilities and obligations. SFOR intervention only would have occurred if the police had completely failed to resolve the situation," said Canadian Capt. Andrew Coxhead, SFOR spokesperson.

At the end of the day, peace had returned in Banja Luka, but bitterness stung. "It seems truly inconceivable, that after five years of peace in this country there are still people who cannot tolerate the faith and belief of others," Coxhead said. Ferhadija still waits for its hour to be reborn of its ashes.

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