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SARAJEVO (Reuters) - Several hundred children from the Serb-controlled part of Bosnia faced expulsion from school on Friday after camping out in Sarajevo for three months in protest at being denied lessons in their native Bosnian language.
The protest has revived debate over Bosnia's highly devolved education system, split along ethnic lines between Serbs, Croats and Muslim Bosniaks since the end of the country's 1992-95 war.
Muslim Bosniaks in two towns in Bosnia's autonomous Serb Republic withdrew their children from school in early September, demanding they be taught language, history and geography classes in their own tongue.
Bosniaks are a minority within the Serb Republic, one of two autonomous regions created under a 1995 peace deal that split power in Bosnia along ethnic lines after a war that killed 100,000 people.
As such, they study according to the Serb curriculum but are entitled to Bosnian language, history and geography lessons in schools where they make up a certain proportion of the class.
The protesting Bosniaks say this is unfair on their children, who do not qualify for the Bosnian classes because their numbers fall below the threshold.
"This is a system based on total assimilation," said Muhizin Omerovic, a Muslim Bosniak parent taking part in the protest outside the office of Bosnia's international overseer. "We Bosniaks don't exist either as a nation or a culture."
Authorities in the Serb Republic have offered to organize the Bosnian classes outside regular school hours, but the parents said this was not enough.
"We are determined to fight to the end because this is a long-standing problem," Omerovic said. "We cannot wait for another 50 years for a solution."
The three official languages in Bosnia - Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian - differ little, but are one of many strict ethnic identifiers in the deeply divided country. History classes in schools vary widely between the three communities.
The children have been threatened with expulsion due to their lengthy absence from school. Friday marks the latest deadline for them to return.
The issue has become highly politicized ahead of a parliamentary election next year. Western officials who are still involved in Bosnian governance say they can only mediate between the rival parties but cannot intervene.
"At the root cause of all this is the fact that in Bosnia-Herzegovina there are three ethnically colored curricula," said Trefor Williams, an education official at the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) which is trying to help reform the school system.
The OSCE's mission head in Bosnia, Fletcher Burton, told Reuters: "The current deadlock indeed needs to be properly addressed, but long-term solutions, underpinned with legislation, are critical."
Editing by Matt Robinson and Mark Trevelyan