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SARAJEVO (Reuters) - Bosnia could again descend into violence unless its leaders heal their ethnic divide, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden warned on Tuesday.
Biden was in Bosnia hoping to bolster a country still plagued by instability and ethnic division 14 years after the end of a conflict that killed 100,000 people.
"Today, to be very blunt with you, I personally, and the leadership of my country is worried ... about the direction of your country and your future," Biden said in an address to the country's parliament.
The United States brokered the 1995 peace deal, but the country remains divided between its two former adversaries, the Bosnian Serbs and the Muslim-Croat federation.
"With all due respect, and forgive me for saying this in your parliament, but this must stop," Biden said of the divide.
"Making the right choice means that the leaders of this country must stop the pursuit of narrow ethnic and political interests instead of the national interest."
Many diplomats and experts consider Bosnia the least stable part of the Balkans and its troubles could potentially slow the region's common desire to integrate into the Europe Union.
"The only real future is to join Europe," Biden said. "Right now you are off that path ... You can follow this path to Europe or you can take an alternative path. You have done it before," Biden said, referring to the 1992-95 war.
"Failure to do so will ensure you remain among the poorest countries in Europe. At worst, you'll descend into ethnic chaos that defined your country for the better part of a decade."
Members of parliament did not interrupt the speech with applause, but cheered Biden at the end.
As a U.S. senator, Biden supported arming Bosnian Muslims in their war against Bosnian Serbs, fuelling suspicion today among Bosnian Serbs who fret Washington might seek to lessen their autonomy. In his speech Biden recalled landing under gunfire in Sarajevo in 1993 when it was under Bosnian Serb siege.
War veterans organized peaceful protests in all towns across the Serb Republic at noon, lighting candles and complaining about discrimination against Bosnian Serbs.
"I came today to protest against this American Biden because I am not happy that he came," said Radivoje Susnjar, a disabled man from the city of Banja Luka. "He supports Muslims even today, and he has always worked against Serbs."
By contrast, some say U.S. involvement is essential to prevent an ever more divided Bosnia.
"The EU isn't doing its bit as I see it and will never be able to do its bit because they disagree on everything," said one European diplomat who declined to be named.
EU foreign policy envoy Javier Solana accompanied Biden on Tuesday along with the international peace envoy who has powers to fire local officials seen as endangering the peace.
"I feel more optimistic ... I think that from this meeting positive things may come," Solana said on Tuesday night. "I think that we are going to see a common future, more activity and better understanding among political leaders."
Rival Bosnian Serb and Muslim leaders struck a positive tone after hearing the blunt message from Biden, who travels to Serbia on Wednesday and then Kosovo.
"This is a very important visit because Biden clearly said that he wants to work closely with the European Union, "Haris Siladzic, the Muslim presidency member, told reporters. "I think we need to start with reforms immediately and clearly point to those who are blocking them."
Additional reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic, and Maja Zuvela in Sarajevo and Olja Stanic in Banja Luka; Editing by Jon Hemming