Bosnia team on trail of 'worst massacre so far'

EMMA DALY

Tuzla

The search for thousands of people missing and presumed dead in Bosnia is gathering pace with new investigations into allegations of mass murder and mass graves being planned by senior Western officials.

The latest to visit Srebrenica, site of what is feared to have been the greatest massacre in Europe since the Second World War, was Elizabeth Rehn, the UN's Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, who won a promise from the Bosnian Serbs that women refugees would be allowed to visit Srebrenica to search for their men.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has more than 12,000 reports from families of people who disappeared. Three-quarters involve people missing from Srebrenica, which fell to Serb forces in July. The women cling to the hope of secret Serb prison camps; most fear their men are dead.

Serb officials in Srebrenica told Ms Rehn they held no prisoners. "I said that it's obvious now that there are quite a lot of mass graves, that a lot of people have been killed, and now it's in the interests of all of us to know exactly what happened," said Ms Rehn, the former Finnish defence minister. "We must have a readiness very soon to open them, because there is no time to be lost."

Ms Rehn, who cited a figure of 3,000 to 5,000 people missing from the enclave, said she could not prove that mass killings took place, but added that "the evidence for massacres is very strong".

The women of Srebrenica have waited for more than six months for news of their relatives, and their anguish has turned to anger, with several noisy demonstrations against the Red Cross and local government offices in Tuzla.

The protests have paused as the women put their faith in Ms Rehn, who persuaded the Serbs to grant one of their demands: permission for a bus trip to Srebrenica and its environs. They are convinced that some of their men are still alive, held in slave labour camps in the area; Ms Rehn visited two of the 10 sites the women named, but found nothing.

Mina Mujic, described by a colleague as one of "the brave", plans to be on the bus. "I want to see the place where I spent my life and I want to find 35 relatives who are missing," she said firmly. Ms Mujic, whose husband walked to safety in Tuzla one month after Srebrenica fell, believes her brother Nazif is imprisoned in a factory; the information came from his former boss, a Serb.

The news that the Serbs denied holding prisoners - mis-reported as "Rehn says all the missing are dead" - caused much grief.

"How can I have hope when they said last night on the television there was a mass grave with 3,000 bodies?" asked Sadeta Dizdarevic, a weaver. "I lost my husband in 1993 and I don't know anything about my son." Ms Dizdarevic and her two daughters were evacuated when Srebrenica fell - but 17-year-old Selvedin tried to escape.

Ms Rehn believes that eventually such information will emerge, and is hopeful that she will gain access to the graves, following a reversal of the four-year Serb policy of sealing such places to outsiders.

The change will be tested again today, when John Shattuck, US Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, is due to visit an open-cast mine in northern Bosnia alleged to hold the remains of several thousand Muslims massacred by Serbs in 1992.

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