SARAJEVO Bosnian Serb leaders commemorated their autonomous republic's national holiday in freezing cold on Monday, defying a Constitutional Court ban and stoking the ethnic tensions that drove Bosnia's 1992-95 war.
Banja Luka, the Serb Republic capital, was festooned with Serb red, blue and white flags and billboards that read "Right to Celebrate". Jan. 9 marks the date in 1992 when Bosnian Serbs declared independence after boycotting a referendum in which Bosniaks (Muslims) and Croats voted to secede from Serbian-led federal Yugoslavia, triggering war in which 100,000 were killed.
Policemen, firemen, athletes and workers marched along Banja Luka's streets while Serb members of the Bosnian army stood aside, after being warned by the Sarajevo-based defence ministry and by NATO that their presence would be deemed illegal.
The son of wartime Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic, who is on trial for genocide at a U.N. tribunal in The Hague, stood on a stage in Banja Luka's main square along with the Orthodox Church Patriarch and politicians from Serbia.
"The Serb Republic will not stay inside Bosnia" unless the region is granted greater powers, Bosnian Serb President Milorad Dodik said. He accused Bosnian central authorities in Sarajevo and their Western backers of trying to usurp autonomous powers granted to the Serb Republic under the 1995 Dayton peace treaty.
"The Serb Republic is determined to live its life as a state," said Dodik. He has long advocated Bosnia's dissolution, putting him at odds with Western powers that invested thousands of troops and billions of euros in keeping Bosnia intact.
The Serbs' brinkmanship over the holiday is widely seen as part of an attempt by Dodik to test the limits of his freedom of manoeuvre against post-war Bosnia's fragile central authorities. He denounced the Sarajevo court ban on marking the holiday.
During Monday's ceremony, the Serb component of the Bosnian national army saluted the Serb member of Bosnia's tripartite presidency, Mladen Ivanic before the parade. His Bosniak counterpart, Bakir Izetbegovic, criticized the gesture and said he would seek an investigation.
The nationalist celebration stirred anguish among survivors of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, the worst atrocity Europe has seen since World War Two, in which more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed by Bosnian Serb forces.
"The Serb Republic was created from the killing and bloodshed of our children and we cannot accept its celebration while we are still searching for the bones of our beloved ones," the association of Srebrenica survivors said in a statement.
(Reporting by Maja Zuvela; editing by Ivana Sekularac and Mark Heinrich)