Serbs march in secret to the aid of Bosnian kin

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The Independent Online

Tara Mountain, Serbia

Goat's Rock at Tara Mountain is a majestic place. It is a sheer cliff in western Serbia overlooking the Drina River, which separates Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The air up here is clear and pure, and the view steals one's breath away.

Looking south, it is possible to make out Visegrad, made famous by Ivo Andric's Nobel Prize-winning novel, Bridge across the Drina. Looking west, there is a chocolate-box vista of rolling hills and clusters of houses with red roofs. Somewhere on the other side of those hills are the besieged Muslim enclaves of Srebrenica and Zepa.

All around Goat's Rock are half a dozen trails and goat paths that wind down to the Drina or to Bosnian meadows where wild flowers bloom like madness in the spring. A guide book available at any of the resort hotels in the area provides maps of the many trails criss-crossing Tara, which is how I found the spot. Written before the break-up of Yugoslavia, it boasts of "the allure of one of the most beautiful and interesting mountains". At one point it says "there are no markers separating Serbia and Bosnia- Herzegovina", only an "imaginary perpendicular line across some trails".

This last detail is important, now more than ever, because Tara Mountain is supposedly an important staging area for covert Serbian military operations in Bosnia in support of the Bosnian Serbs. According to a member of a special unit of the Serbian police who refused to be identified for fear of reprisals, Serbian police combat units serve one-month tours in Bosnia, using the Tara trails to cross undetected in and out of the country.

If true, the dispatch to Bosnia of troops from the police - the force most loyal to President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia - would be another indication that Belgrade has not cut ties with the Bosnian Serbs.

It would also show that Serbia maintains an active role in the Bosnian war, despite denials. Mr Milosevic vowed last year to seal the Serbia- Bosnia border, and won an easing of UN sanctions as a result. He insists that since then only non-lethal aid has been sent to the Bosnian Serbs, an assertion generally accepted by a team of 190 UN monitors watching Serbian border traffic with Bosnia.

However, spokesmen for the monitors in Belgrade admit that because of their small numbers, they can only control official crossing points and some unofficial ones big enough for vehicles to pass. The rest of the border crossings are left to the rump Yugoslav army and the Serbian police to monitor. "We try to patrol all areas but it is impossible for us to stop all crossings, especially by those people who want to put on a rucksack and hike across," said one monitor.

At the weekend there were no signs of either UN monitors or Serbian military units around Tara. At least two trails I visited which lead down to Bosnia could be travelled unhindered.

When asked how police units got past UN monitors, the policeman waved dismissively. "Come on. There are no UN monitors where we operate. We use the goat trails."

Once in Bosnia, the Serbian police donned Bosnian Serb uniforms and manned trenches in eastern Bosnia, or wherever they were needed. Occasionally they would be used in combat, but only in exceptional cases.

The Bosnian Serb army is short of men and overstretched.Extra trained units to help maintain the lines are crucial if it is to resist Muslim advances. The policeman said service in Bosnia was not voluntary, which was why he was angry enough to speak about it.

There is no way to obtain independent corroboration of his story. However, there have been many other reports which also suggest Serbia is continuing to aid its cousins in Bosnia.

The UN monitors' last report on the border closure, between 16 May and 22 June, said there were at least 688 cases of uniformed Serbian soldiers and policemen crossing into Bosnia. All crossings were listed as violations of the border closure.The report also describes a casewhere monitors came across a "strong [rump] Yugoslav army presence" at the Becka Pec uncontrolled crossing, where soldiers appeared to be operating on both sides of the border. The report said: "They claimed they owned land on both sides of the border and had to use the road through the uncontrolled border crossings to till it."

Nevertheless, the monitors' report to the UN Secretary- General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, said such incidents were "not significant", and concluded that the Serbian border with Bosnia should remain closed to unauthorised traffic.

Perhaps the clearest sign of Serbia's military support for the Bosnian Serbs is a round-up of Bosnian and Croatian Serbs in Serbia.

Many of the draft-age men were recognised refugees, but were sent back to Serb-controlled Croatia and Bosnia as front-line cannon-fodder.



Sarajevo - The UN said yesterday it was concerned at a build-up of Croatian forces around two Serb-held enclaves in Croatia and voiced fears the army might be preparing an offensive, Reuter reports.

UN spokesmen said peace-keepers reported unusually large Croatian troop movements around the two Serb enclaves still under nominal UN control.

A spokesman, Captain Toby Bridge, said the Croatian army had staged a large-scale exercise near ceasefire lines around the separatist pocket of Eastern Slavonia in the eastern end of Croatia bordering Yugoslavia. The Croatians had also built up a new camp near Ogulin in the largest enclave, containing the rebel "capital" Knin, near the Adriatic coast.