Bosnian PoW exchange runs into trouble

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True to its word, the Bosnian government yesterday refused to release more than 200 Serb prisoners of war, scuppering the planned release of more than 900 people across five front-line check-points. The authorities in Sarajevo had refused last week to endorse a Red Cross plan for a comprehensive prisoner release until the Bosnian Serbs accounted for more than 24,000 people reported missing, of whom 4,000 are believed to have been imprisoned.

All but three of the 210 Serb prisoners bused by the Bosnian Croats about 120 miles from Mostar to the Black Dog check-point, south of the Serb citadel of Banja Luka, were sent back after the Serbs failed to produce any of their detainees. The three exceptions were allowed to cross to Serb-held territory.

Under the Dayton peace plan, the parties are supposed to release all their prisoners by midnight on Friday. But the Muslim-led Bosnian government insists that the issue must be linked to the fate of missing persons, including thousands who disappeared in July after the fall of the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia, and who are alleged to have been murdered and buried in mass graves.

"They said this plan should include all their allegations about prisoners they think the Bosnian Serbs have, and that includes 3,000 people they think were arrested during the fall of Srebrenica," said Christophe Girod, the Red Cross delegate in charge at Bocac, where more than 400 prisoners were to have been set free.

Red Cross officials say they may only act on the list of prisoners submitted by the parties, and that the fate of those who have disappeared is a separate issue. "We are keeping pressure on the Bosnian Serbs to get an answer [about those missing from Srebrenica]," Mr Girod said. "We have big fears about where they are."

If the deadline passes without the prisoners being freed, the Red Cross will hand the issue over to Admiral Leighton Smith, commander of Nato's Implementation Force(I-For), who must judge whether the parties are complying with Dayton, and if not, what sanctions should be applied.

Nine prisoners were freed yesterday by the Bosnian Croats, including three Serbs in Mostar and three Muslims in Orasje, on the border with Croatia. But the planned release of one Muslim and six Serbs in Gorazde and 80 Serb PoWs near Sanski Most was abandoned yesterday.

It was to have been the final prisoner release of the war. So far, more than 17,000 detainees have been exchanged since 1992. The Red Cross delegation at Bocac tried to broker a bilateral release between the Bosnian Croats and Serbs, but although the latter sent empty coaches to Black Dog to collect any freed Serbs, they failed to deliver any prisoners.

Two members of the Serb prisoner-exchange committee eventually arrived at the checkpoint. But they said they were only willing to release 16 prisoners, when at least 31 were expected.

Mr Girod admitted defeat. "I'm quite disappointed, but not as much as the prisoners," he said, referring to the Serbs who had travelled from Mostar. "You can imagine their mood," he added. "To bring 210 prisoners up to a crossing point and then bring them back is a bit outrageous."

He was annoyed with both sides and warned that the planned exchange today of 360 prisoners at Sarajevo airport looks unlikely to proceed. "Let's be realistic," he said. "It will probably not go ahead."

n New York - The UN Security Council was set last night to create a new force of up to 5,000 troops, backed by Nato air power, for the last Serb- held region of Croatia. The council was expected to vote to establish a military and civilian mission to Eastern Slavonia, a sliver of Croatian territory containing some oil which borders Serb-dominated Yugoslavia.