Arab passions fired by Bosnia: Robert Fisk reports on growing Islamic support for Muslim victims in

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The Independent Online
THE ARABS have found a cause in the Balkans. Their passion is real, their funds for the Muslim victims of Bosnia substantial, but for the moment their rhetoric way in advance of their intentions.

Upwards of 25 separate Islamic relief agencies are operating in the former Yugoslavia - well over dollars 45m ( pounds 22.5m) has been collected by one Saudi welfare agency - while the Iranians have sent 700 tons of food and medicine into Bosnia.

Egyptians, Syrians, Palestinians and Saudis now visit some 120 Muslim refugee camps in Bosnia, Slovenia and Croatia, helping to set up medical centres and even schools for tens of thousands of their deported co-religionists.

All publicly deny any Islamic military assistance to the Bosnian Muslim forces, although there can be little doubt of their political

intentions. In the lobby and suites of the Zagreb Intercontinental Hotel there are obvious - if historically inaccurate - parallels to be drawn.

'The way the Bosnians are being kicked out of their country is very similar to what happened to the Palestinians in 1948,' Abdul- Mouti Hafez says, as he leans over the table of his office in the hotel, his beard pointed, his face unsmiling, as he outlines the Arab version of the Balkan plot.

'American policy is to dominate people using a humanitarian face. In the Gulf, they want to control the oil. In Europe, their policy is not to help or be part of the establishment of a small Islamic state or a place where Muslims are in the majority. This is why the West was outraged over the invasion of Kuwait but not much concerned with the Bosnian crisis.'

Mr Hafez is the Palestinian co- ordinator of the Waqf foundation, established in 1987 and based, curiously, in the Netherlands. His charity's expenditure in Bosnia is 'top secret' - these are his words and they were used by at least one other Muslim agency - but its work includes the teaching of Arabic to Muslim students in a Slovenian refugee camp at Maribor. For Bosnia's Muslims have grown up far from the roots of their

Islamic heritage.

But Arab press and television, increasingly controlled by Saudi Arabia, is daily and bitterly publicising the plight of Bosnia's Muslims. The Saudi-controlled satellite Middle East Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), owned by Sheikh Walid al-Ibrahim, is sparing its viewers none of the details of the murder and deportation of tens of thousands of European Muslims at the hands of the Christian Serbs.

According to Khaled al- Maeena, editor of the Saudi Arab News, most Arabs would favour military action against the Serbs, whom he calls 'the perpetrators of this crime', as well as humanitarian help. 'The Palestinians were not killed as viciously and mercilessly as the Bosnians - genocide is different from repression,' he says.

Fahad al-Yahia, a Saudi administrator for al-Ibrahim Bin Abdulaziz al-Ibrahim Foundation, which is registered under Saudi royal decree in Riyadh, says that his organisation has a dollars 6m budget for Bosnia this year, the same figure budgeted for famine relief in Somalia.

The 'High Public Committee for Bosnia-Herzegovina', however, was established two months ago by King Fahd of Saudi Arabia with an dollars 8m personal donation from the monarch and, so it is claimed, an additional dollars 37m from Saudi subscribers. Little wonder, then, that Zagreb office agents are busy finding space for the influx of Saudi-backed Arab relief specialists.

There are, inevitably, reports that not all the help being given to the Bosnians is humanitarian, allegations which the Serbs have used to support their claim that Bosnia's Muslims wish to set up an Islamic state. One United Nations official said that an Iranian shipment of humanitarian supplies arrived in mysterious circumstances. 'It came into Zagreb airport in the middle of the night on an Iran Air Boeing 747 direct from Tehran,' he said. 'It was unloaded at night and we were not allowed to inspect it.'

There is also the surprising presence in Zagreb of a Sudanese embassy. Trade relations between Sudan and Croatia can scarcely be regarded as a going concern just now and the embassy appears to be little more than two locked offices - rooms 200 and 202 - in the Intercontinental hotel. But the embassy would be allowed diplomatic bags, uninspected by the Croatians.

In Tehran, Iranians have demonstrated in front of the local United Nations Development Programme office on behalf of 'the oppressed people of Bosnia' to demand 'action' against the Serbs. Arab press reports claim that 5,000 Pakistanis have volunteered to fight against Serbia and that even in Malaysia, Muslims have asked to be sent to fight for Bosnia. Non-Muslim India, however, the same reports claim, has taken the aggressor's side because it wishes to keep Serbia in the non-aligned movement.

Iran's assistance has involved three air shipments of relief supplies this month, while the Saudi- financed International Islamic Relief Organisation, whose medical volunteers include Algerians, Sudanese, Jordanians, Palestinians and Egyptians, says it has sent more than 15,000 tons of food and 12 ambulances to Bosnia since April, also financing the needs of 1,500 Muslim refugees in Split and 3,000 in another camp.

The organisation's director, Zaher Abdulaziz, claims to have a contract with the government of Slovenia to care for a further 10,000 Muslims.

'The Bosnian and Croatian Muslim fighters don't need more men,' he says. 'The Bosnians are not fundamentalists. They are Europeans. Alija Izetbegovic (the Bosnian president) says he wants democracy and religious freedom - so it would create problems with the Bosnians and an excuse for the Serbs if Arab fighters came.'

Yet Arabs can scarcely claim to be devoting all their resources to the Muslims of Bosnia. Mr Abdulaziz says that the Arabs are 'helping the Bosnians more than they did the Palestinians', a statement which is palpably untrue.

While Arab nations have three times gone to war over the Palestinian question, they have shown themselves largely impotent in the face of a European pogrom against Muslims in the Balkans, which would make their rage all the more real.

(Photograph omitted)