Serb refugees forced to fight Muslims: Desperate Bosnians plead for UN help as spring offensive looms

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The Independent Online
SERBIAN authorities are rounding up unwilling Bosnian Serb refugees to make them fight Muslims in neighbouring Bosnia.

The mobilisation flies in the face of Serbia's assertion that it is not involved in the Bosnian war, and United Nations officials have condemned it as a violation of international agreements protecting refugees from forced repatriation.

Since Tuesday, dozens of desperate Bosnian Serb men aged between 16 and 60 have been arriving daily at the Belgrade offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), seeking international help to avoid the forced conscription.

According to officials, at least 26 Bosnian Serb men of fighting age were recently rounded up at a refugee collection centre in Kosovo. They were driven to the Bosnian border and handed over to Bosnian Serb authorities.

'These people are refugees. They have been granted refugee status by the federal government of Yugoslavia and by the Serbian state. Sending them back to the fronts against their will is not only morally wrong, it is illegal and we are going to fight it,' said a senior UNHCR official in Belgrade.

Although there have been rumours of round-ups and forced repatriations of Serbian refugees, a steady flow of draft-dodgers to the UN agency in the past few days was the first confirmation for the UNHCR that the process was under way and being organised by the refugees' host country.

A Serbian refugee commission official in Belgrade had no information about any such forced conscription, but added: 'Refugees on Serbian territory have all the rights of Serbian citizens.'

All those seeking protection have call-up documents stamped by the 'defence ministry' of the so-called 'Bosnian Serb republic' which ordered them to garrisons in Serbia - not Bosnia. On the back of the draft slips is the warning: 'If you fail to present yourself for service, you will be subject to arrest and imprisonment by the police.'

At the Belgrade UNHCR offices yesterday, four men aged between 26 and 53 from different towns in Bosnia begged the UN refugee protection officer for help. All wore the desperate haggard expressions of men on the run with no place to hide. Two said they were from mixed marriages. One said he had been jailed by the mainly Muslim Bosnian army in central Bosnia because he refused to fight there. He fled to Serbia when he was released in a prisoner exchange. None of the men wanted his name published.

'I am from a mixed marriage,' the 26-year-old from Sarajevo said. 'My mother is a Serb. My father is a Croat. I have never made any distinctions between nationalities before and I am not going to start now. I think it is stupid to fight this war.'

Another man, a 37-year-old economist from Bihac, said: 'We understand that refugees are expensive for Serbia and it costs Serbia a lot of money to keep us, but I would expect Serbia at least to protect me physically if they can't protect me economically.'

One man added that the Serbian official serving him his call-up papers said the Bosnian Serb government sent blank compulsory service forms to Belgrade which were completed by Serbian officials using details obtained from Serbian Red Cross aid lists.

Refugees and diplomats believe the Serbs are boosting Bosnian Serb forces ahead of an expected Muslim offensive this spring. The breakdown of the Geneva peace talks on Wednesday spells trouble for the government of President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia.

Mr Milosevic needed the Muslims to have agreed to a settlement if the international community were to have lifted economic sanctions imposed on the rump Yugoslavia for its role in the war in Bosnia.

The sanctions have been pushing Yugoslavia towards economic collapse, while a string of battlefield successes has left the Muslims defiant.

Diplomats and other observers say the Serbs now believe that they must strike the Muslims before they can launch an offensive against Serb-held areas of Bosnia.

The Independent Bosnia Appeal stands at pounds 249,002.99, sent by readers nominating one or more of 15 named charities operating in former Yugoslavia. Separate cheques for each donation, payable to the individual organisation, should be sent to: Bosnia Appeal, The Independent, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB.

Hurd visit, page 10

Leading article, page 15

Andrew Marr, page 17