BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — In the most heated exchange since the war in the 1990s, Serbia warned Bosnia on Tuesday it would come to the defense of Bosnian Serbs if they were attacked as tensions rise in the Balkans ahead of next weekend's referendum.
Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said in a statement Serbia will "certainly not allow the destruction of or a military attack" against Bosnia's autonomous Serb ministate, Republika Srpska, created under a U.S.-brokered peace deal that divided Bosnia.
Dacic was reacting to comments made by former wartime Bosnian Army commander Safer Halilovic who said that, without Serbia's support, Bosnian Serbs wouldn't be able to withstand federal forces for more than 15 days. Halilovic, a retired general, spoke to a local Bosnian TV station and was not speaking in any official capacity.
In 1992-95, Bosnian Serbs took up arms against Bosnia's secession from Serb-led Yugoslavia. As a result, some 100,000 people died and millions were left homeless in the worst carnage in Europe since World War II.
"The (Bosnian) citizens must know that on this territory the Yugoslav Army no longer exists," Halilovic told Bosnia's TV1. "Serbia can no longer help."
Dacic responded that "the statement by Safer Halilovic about the destruction of Republika Srpska represents the gravest threat to peace and stability in the region."
The Bosnian Serb ministate is holding a referendum on Sunday on maintaining the date of its national holiday on Jan. 9 — the date in 1992 when Bosnian Serbs declared the creation of their own state within Bosnia. During the war that followed, they expelled non-Serbs from the territory they controlled with the aim of making it part of neighboring Serbia. For non-Serbs living there the date is a symbol of their expulsion and a sign that Republika Srpska is still a place meant just for Serbs.
Bosnia's constitutional court has ruled that the holiday discriminates against Bosnian Muslims and Catholic Croats. Russia supports the referendum, while the U.S. and the West do not.
Halilovic said that the referendum is illegal and urged "it is better for us to talk for 100 years that to fight a war."
But, he added, "if he (Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik) forces us into a situation in which Bosnia is torn apart, he should know — this will not happen in a peaceful way."
An international body overseeing the implementation of Bosnia's peace accords, the Peace Implementation Council, called on Bosnia's factions on Tuesday "to refrain from reactive measures and divisive rhetoric."
It "strongly condemns statements from anyone that undermine stability and security, or which challenge the territorial integrity of" Bosnia, it said.
AP reporter Aida Cerkez contributed from Sarajevo, Bosnia.