Bosnian Muslims feel heat from Washington

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The Independent Online

Europe Editor

The US Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, flew to former Yugoslavia yesterday for a visit intended to maintain pressure on Bosnia's three rival leaderships to adhere to last month's Paris peace settlement. Somewhat unexpectedly, he may find the party he needs to talk toughest to is not the Serbs or the Croats but Bosnia's Muslim-led government.

President Alija Izetbegovic and his colleagues have disappointed the Americans on a variety of issues over the past month, ranging from the retention of military contacts with Iran to actions jeopardising democracy and multi- culturalism inside Bosnia. The US was the Bosnian government's strongest supporter in the West during the 1992-95 war. Lately some of that sympathy has started to turn into frustration.

Only yesterday the International Committee of the Red Cross discovered 88 Serb prisoners in a Bosnian government prison in the northern city of Tuzla. They were being held in violation of the peace terms, which stated that all prisoners of war should be released by 19 January.

The peace agreement also stipulated that all foreign Islamic fighters should leave Bosnian territory by the same date, but US officials say Iranian military and intelligence personnel remain in Bosnia under the cover of humanitarian missions. The Clinton administration warned recently that if these men did not leave, and if Bosnia's government continued to delay the release of prisoners of war, the US would reconsider its promise to equip the Bosnian army.

This brought protests from Bosnia's outgoing Foreign Minister, Muhamed Sacirbey, who criticised the US and its Nato allies for doing too little to establish what happened to thousands of Muslim men who went missing during the war. He said the Serbs still held at least 1,000 Muslim prisoners, a much higher figure than the estimate of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which said last Thursday the Serbs were holding only 22.

Mr Sacirbey said it was in the West's interest to equip and train the Bosnian army. In an apparent allusion to military supplies covertly sent to the Muslim-led forces during the war from Iran and other Islamic states, he added: "If Bosnia can defend itself with Western weapons, it doesn't have to apply for other means from other sources."

Another point of friction between the US and the Bosnian government is the latter's delay in granting an amnesty to ordinary Serb soldiers who fought against the Muslim-led army. Western countries view the amnesty as an important element in persuading the Serb populations of five districts of Sarajevo to stay there, after the areas are handed over to Muslim-Croat control.

During his trip, Mr Christopher is due to hold talks with President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia in Zagreb and President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia in Belgrade. He is expected to spell out the US view that all alleged war criminals indicted by a United Nations tribunal based in The Hague must be brought to trial. Fifty-two people have been charged with war crimes so far, of whom 45 are Serbs and seven are Croats. According to lawyers in The Hague, Serbia has offered practically no assistance to the tribunal.

Croatia says it is willing to co-operate but has indicated that its attitude is influenced by Serbia's foot-dragging. So far, only one person charged with war crimes, a Bosnian Serb former karate instructor, is in the tribunal's custody.

n About 20,000 displaced Serb civilians in Banja Luka are waiting to re-enter the area known as the Anvil, the largest chunk of Bosnian territory to be handed back under the Dayton peace accord, writes Christopher Bellamy. Bosnian Serb authorities are not letting them return until the Nato-led peace force has secured the area. Under the peace agreement the Bosnian Croats who overran the Anvil in the summer must withdraw by today.