U.S. Withdraws From Key Serb Bridge

BRCKO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- U.S. troops with the NATO-led peace force withdrew early Thursday from a key bridge in an apparent attempt to defuse tensions that built when they waded into a Bosnian Serb political dispute a week ago.

International envoys have scrambled in recent days to undo the damage done when U.S. soldiers and armored vehicles moved into this and four other strategic northern towns last week, drawing an angry response from Serbs backing top war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic and failing to secure police stations for his opponents.

It is vital to defuse tension if internationally supervised local elections that have cost millions of dollars and months of effort to prepare are to go ahead as scheduled Sept. 13 and 14.

Withdrawal from the Brcko bridge -- scene of the worst clashes last Thursday -- came after powerful Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic on Wednesday urged Bosnian Serb leaders in Belgrade to take part in the elections, which they threatened to boycott.

The top international envoy in Bosnia, Carlos Westendorp, met Milosevic on Wednesday to pressure him into making the elections possible.

Karadzic and his camp -- conscious of their victory against U.S. troops last week -- had threatened to stay away from the elections, claiming the international community had not prepared them well enough.

U.S. troops again confronted angry Serbs this week at a key transmitter that might have been handed over to supporters of Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic, who has turned against Karadzic and has the backing of foreign envoys.

But they backed away from that confrontation, too.

Withdrawal from the Brcko bridge -- destroyed at the start of the Bosnian war in 1992 and reopened this summer by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright -- seemed another attempt to avoid direct confrontation with Serbs.

Bosnian Serb and unarmed international police were the only ones seen Thursday morning at the bridge, a key traffic link between Bosnia and Croatia across the Sava river and Bosnia's main link with Western Europe.

Robert Farrand, a U.S. diplomat appointed administrator of Serb-held Brcko, called the pullout a "normal reduction and redeployment" of peace troops "which should not spark alarm."

"The bridge has now been turned to [Serb] police. Isn't that what the people want, control of their own facilities?" Farrand said in Brcko.

U.S. troops moved into Brcko and four other northern towns last Thursday saying they had word that men loyal to Plavsic aimed to take over the five police stations by force. The Americans said they acted to prevent violence. But two U.S. soldiers and several Serb civilians were wounded when crowds organized by the Karadzic camp confronted the troops in Brcko, which sits astride a narrow land corridor that links Serb holdings in eastern and western Bosnia.

U.S. special envoy Robert Gelbard charged Karadzic's supporters with using women and children as shields for rock-throwing demonstrators.