Curfew shields forces of darkness: Banja Luka has lost most of its Muslim population and its mosques. Looking for culprits, Robert Fisk met only silence

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THEY KNOW how to get rid of their Muslims in Banja Luka. Last week, they blew up two more mosques in Novo Senje, bringing their score of destroyed mosques to 12 out of the 16 in the town. They blast them to pieces in the early hours, during the curfew, when the police control the streets.

'They' have already brought Banja Luka's pre-war Muslim population of 45,000 down to just 15,000. Of Prijedor's 76,000 Muslims, they have only 7,000 left to contend with. And during the curfew - the usual time for such events - just two weeks ago, they called on a Muslim family living on the southern side of Banja Luka, kidnapped their 18-year-old daughter, gang-raped her, slit her throat and threw her body in the River Vrbanja. 'They' - as the local lexicon would have it - are kept mighty busy in Banja Luka.

After all, they are still exiling Muslims, five hundred at a time, on buses to the north, all of them forced to leave their homes and property to the Serbs, and paying an 'exit tax' for the privilege.

'We have asked our Muslims to stay on - we do not want them to leave,' Ibrahim Khalilovic, the Imam of Banja Luka, says hopelessly in the office of the local Islamic Institute. 'But it is a difficult thing to ask them to do.'

To understand why, you have only to glance out of the Imam's picture window, built to show the magnificent Ferhad Pasha mosque outside, constructed in 1579 with a gentle dome above three high arches and a 40-foot minaret, the pride of the Bosnian pashas who established their residence here until the mid-16th century. But 'they' visited the mosque on 17 June - as usual, at three in the morning - and blew the mosque to pieces. That which had stood for more than 400 years turned to dust in seconds.

So who are 'they'? There are no clues in the rubble. When I prowled through the broken courtyard of the mosque with a British television crew last week, we were watched by an indifferent, blue-uniformed Serb policeman and two girls, one of whom vouchsafed her view that 'no one from Banja Luka would do such a thing'.

They had certainly done a professional job. Only a broken-topped central column, the tip of the minaret with an upended set of stone stairs and some delicately painted roofing remained. The mosque of Ferhad Pasha Sokolovic - for he was a Muslim Slav, not a Turk - was fought over by the Austrians and Turks in 1739, shelled again when Tito's partisans bombarded a neighbouring fortress whose German occupiers refused to surrender in 1945, and then suffered further damage in the 1979 earthquake that partially destroyed Banja Luka. Now it has gone for ever.

The Serb mayor of Banja Luka, Pedrag Radic, casts his eyes to the ceiling of his room above the town square. 'I was among the first to condemn what happened,' he says. 'I condemned the destruction of this cultural, social, historic monument.' Note the absence of the word religious. 'The police are investigating this matter.'

So they must be. And a lot of work the Banja Luka constabulary must have on its hands right now, what with the destruction of those 12 mosques - four of them on a single night on 4 July - the murder and rape of thousands of Muslims from neighbouring towns, as well as the mysterious disappearance from his home on 17 June of Mohamed Imamovic, the leader of the Islamic Party in Banja Luka. He was taken from his house during - of course - the curfew, and never seen again. To be sure, all these crimes are on the police books, not to mention the butchery of the 18-year-old woman.

Around town, they say that word went round about the bombing of the Ferhad Pasha mosque two hours before its destruction, a warning to the locals that they should open their windows to prevent the glass shattering. 'I have heard this story,' Mr Radic says. 'And I have heard that Muslims were also told to open their windows. It cost us thousands of dollars in damage and we still haven't finished the repairs.' What Mr Radic does not say is that it must have taken two truck-loads of explosives to demolish the sound old Ottoman structure, lorries which somehow evaded the nightly security curfew. Obviously a bad night for the Banja Luka police.

But at the Bosna Hotel in town, the uniformed Serb policemen who wander in for drinks of an evening seem confident enough in their duties, happy, guns at their hips, knocking back cheap slivovic that costs only a few thousand dinars, before heading out into the darkness. The Serbs of the self-declared Republic of Serbske invented their own currency which has already collapsed under the United Nations embargo.

The Muslims, of course, have other problems on their minds. Lie in bed at night in the Bosna and you can hear shooting, sometimes isolated, sometimes continuous, and the occasional rumble of explosions. The curfew again, when the police are in charge. And a busy time they must have of it.

(Photograph omitted)