Croats herd Muslims into Mostar: Up to 30,000 face forced removal from Bosnia as 'cleansing' rages

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The Independent Online
MOSTAR - Hundreds of men believed to be Muslims were taken under Croatian military police escort to Mostar on Monday, where they vanished down a road to the city's heliport, used as an internment camp for Muslims in the past.

Their movements were observed by a Reuters reporter and photographer who were prevented by the Croatian military police from interviewing the prisoners and told to leave at gunpoint. The journalists had followed five trucks and a bus full of pale, emaciated men - most of them in civilian clothes - for miles through the countryside from just outside the Croatian stronghold of Capljina in south-western Bosnia.

UN peace-keepers and international relief workers have cautioned for weeks that Croatian forces are engaged in 'ethnic cleansing' - the forcible relocation of one ethnic group for the benefit of another - on a massive scale around Mostar.

Mate Boban, leader of the Bosnian Croats, rejected such allegations when he met General Francis Briquement, head of the UN Protection Force (Unprofor) in Bosnia, on Monday. 'Boban denied the whole thing,' said Victor Andreev, Unprofor's civil affairs co-ordinator, who attended the meeting. 'He said they held a few prisoners of war but no civilians and he accused the Muslims of ethnically cleansing Croats.'

Muslims and Croats, who once fought as allies against rebel Serb forces in Bosnia's 15-month-old civil war, have turned against one another. Most Muslim men between 16 and 60 have been arrested and separated from their families in the Mostar region. Mostar itself has been off-limits to reporters, UN troops and aid workers for about three weeks as Croat and Muslim forces battle for control of the ancient city.

The Reuters journalists reached the centre of Mostar on Monday evening, where there was fierce fighting. The sound of exploding mortar bombs and small arms and anti-aircraft artillery fire echoed through the streets, which were mostly deserted apart from soldiers and military vehicles. We saw a group of about 10 refugees, including three children, huddled in a main street around a small pile of personal belongings. One woman identified herself as a Serb and the others said they were Muslims, all from Mostar.

Before the refugees could say more, three car-loads of Croatian military police arrived and ended the interview. 'These people will be transported out of the city by an international agency,' one policeman said.

As the journalists passed the heliport turn-off they saw another group of male prisoners being transferred from a truck on to a bus on the main highway. The prisoners kept their eyes on the ground and did not speak as they were being unloaded under the gaze of about a dozen Croatian military police.

UN sources told Reuters yesterday that Bosnian Croat forces would try to send up to 10,000 Muslim male detainees abroad in an exodus that could swell to 30,000 if relatives joined them. The sources said Croatian forces planned to set up a giant transit camp with international telephone lines which the detainees could use to apply for visas to other countries. 'The Croats are now just as determined to clear the territory they hold of Muslims as the Serbs have been,' a Zagreb-based UN source said. 'Once the international community began discussing the possibility of three separate ethnic states in Bosnia, this was inevitable.'

UN officials said yesterday that the staff of a Bosnian mental institution where 230 children were found abandoned without food or water were refusing to return because it lies in a dangerous battlefront zone. A UN rescue team which arrived on Monday, three days after 5,000 Croat inhabitants of the town of Fojnica fled a Muslim military onslaught, fed and treated 230 emaciated children and removed the bodies of two babies.

Pool television footage of the institute showed gaunt children, some of them adolescents and many covered with scabs, curled up in the soiled sheets of baby cribs. Some patients, naked from the waist down, squatted on skeletal haunches on floors coated with refuse and grime.

Two field workers of the UNHCR were assigned to run the institute for the time being.

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