British troops guard Bosnian mass grave

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The Independent Online

Defence Correspondent

British forces in Bosnia were keeping an eye on a vast, waterlogged open-cast iron ore mine in north-west Bosnia last night after allegations that thousands of bodies might be buried there. The British troops, responsible for the area under Nato's Implementation Force (I-For), have contacted the international war crimes tribunal representative in Sarajevo.

The tribunal is to send a team to investigate the mine at Ljubija, south- west of Prijedor, "in the near future". But although the British will report anything they find to him, they said yesterday their job was to keep the warring sides apart, not to go looking for war crimes or war criminals.

Ljubija is in Serb-held territory that will remain Serb under the Dayton peace deal, suggesting any bodies found there are those of Muslims or Croats. It is now the base for the 2nd Battalion, the Light Infantry, which may have to guard the war crimes team if local Serbs oppose an investigation.

A report in the New York Times yesterday quoted a British officer as saying that troops in the region often come across bodies.

Zvonimir Cicak, of the Croatian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, said: "There were a lot of killings in Ljubija. We think there may be as many as 8,000 bodies in the mine. We have eyewitness testimony from people who saw the bodies. On top of the bodies they dumped lime. This is probably the largest mass grave in Serb-held Bosnia."

A spokesman at the British headquarters in Gornji Vakuf said: "We are investigating this report," but he added: "We are reminding people that our first aim is to deal with the military aspects of the ceasefire."

Ljubija lies close to the front line reached by Croat and Muslim forces during their rapid advance in September, which led directly to the Dayton agreement. The report of large numbers of bodies in the mine almost certainly refers to people killed in the summer of 1992. There were persistent reports at the time of bodies being dropped down mineshafts.

In Geneva, an official of the war crimes tribunal said it has long been aware of allegations that Bosnian Serbs were hiding bodies in mineshafts. The deputy prosecutor, Graham Blewitt, said the tribunal believed that gaining access to this region was one of its main priorities.

Mr Blewitt said Serbia was not co-operating with the tribunal despite a pledge to do so. If it did not, he warned, the tribunal could complain to the UN Security Council that Belgrade was in "non-compliance" with the agreement, which diplomats say could be grounds for reimposing UN sanctions.

The British units in the area are patrolling both sides of the former front line, and negotiating with the local forces to get them to withdraw from the 4km "zone of separation". Part of the area patrolled by the British is now held by Bosnian Croats, but is to be handed back to the Bosnian Serbs.

n Sarajevo- Bosnian Serbs lifted a threat to flee Sarajevo yesterday despite a rejection by the Nato secretary-general, Javier Solana, of their plea to delay the transfer of their suburbs to the government. About 70,000 Serbs were said to be ready to evacuate the city and burn their houses unless Nato delayed the hand-over.