Bosnian Serbs pledge to end 'cleansing'

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The Independent Online
Bosnian Serb leaders admitted for the first time yesterday that their forces have been engaged in 'ethnic cleansing' and promised to stop the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of Muslims.

In another gesture designed to appease hostile international opinion before a conference on the future of Yugoslavia in London next week, they repeated a pledge to hand over the day- to-day management of all Serb-run detention centres in Bosnia to the Red Cross. The camps have been at the centre of the storm, following reports that Serbs are running Nazi-style death camps in which civilians are routinely tortured and killed.

Speaking in Belgrade, Radovan Karadzic, leader of Bosnian Serbs, said that the practice of expelling Muslims and Croats from the 60 per cent of Bosnia under Serb control would be halted. 'We will put a stop to ethnic cleansing and punish all those responsible,' he said. 'We have never supported ethnic cleansing. All refugees must be allowed to return to their homes.'

At the same time he seemed reluctant completely to condemn the policy, claiming that much of deportation was 'ethnic resettlement, carried out in response to the request of the population who wish to leave an area of high tension'. But the Bosnian Serb chief did go on to denounce as invalid the widespread practice among Serbs of forcing Muslims and Croats to sign documents surrendering their property before they quit their homes.

'All the property handed over under duress will have to be returned,' he said. 'Any documents on selling or giving up property made under duress will be declared null and void and without validity.' Mr Karadzic asserted that atrocities 'have taken place on all sides'. The Bosnian Serb leader also repeated an offer to hand all over all Serb-run detention centres in Bosnia to the 'co-management' of the Red Cross, to deflect recent charges of running concentration camps.

Western human rights organisations agree that all parties in Bosnia's four- month ethnic war involving Muslims, Serbs and Croats have set up detention camps where atrocities have taken place. But they apportion the overwhelming share of the blame for atrocities to the Serbian side.

Mr Karadzic said: 'The Red Cross can take over every aspect of running the camps except that of the gaurds. They can be co-managers.' He promised to release all prisoners who are in poor health and said the Serbian side is 'ready to close all the prison camps'.

There is sharp controversy over the number of Serbian camps which exist in Bosnia and how many people have been killed in them, or been the victims of torture. Western human rights organisations have reported up to 170,000 Muslims and Croats being held in the camps and they have accused Serbian guards of systematic 'recreational' sadism, torturing and killing prisoners for no reason.

They have also reported that at least 20,000 Muslim civilians were killed in Serbian 'ethnic cleansing' operations in eastern and northern Bosnia. Bosnian Serb leaders reply that a maximum of 8,000 prisoners are held in their camps. They deny all accusations of routine torture and killings.

Mr Karadzic's initiative included a proposed ceasefire and a plan to recognise Bosnia's external frontiers, once an agreement on splitting the republic into three autonomous regions was reached. The proposal dovetails with the standpoints which will be presented next week by the delegation from the unrecognised rump Yugoslavia, now consisting only of Serbia and Montenegro, at the London conference.

The new Yugoslav Prime Minister, Milan Panic, wants to see Serbia's pariah status lifted at the conference. With that aim in mind he has ridden roughshod over nationalist opinion, promising to recognise Bosnia and Croatia in their existing frontiers.

An implicit threat by Belgrade to dump the cause of the battling Serb communities in Bosnia and Croatia, coupled with international outrage over alleged Serbian atrocities in Bosnia, may have pushed the Bosnian Serbs to the negotiating table.

With more than 60 per cent of Bosnian territory in their grip, they are in a position to strike a deal.

SARAJEVO - Mortar bombs crashed on central Sarajevo yesterday killing at least four people and wounding 23, and fire broke out at a UN barracks, Reuter reports.

Five mortar bombs landed between the Bosnian government building, which was set ablaze in fierce fighting on Thursday, and the city's central market. Among those killed was a man who apparently had been taking a bag of cash to a bank to exchange for Bosnian dinars, the new currency the government issued this week.