Evacuations may follow Serb killings

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ZAGREB - United Nations and Red Cross officials accused Bosnian Serbs yesterday of having murdered 17 Muslims and two Croats, causing aid officials to consider a mass evacuation of non-Serb civilians from northern Bosnia.

The United States harshly condemned the new wave of Serbian ethnic atrocities, in Prijedor and also in Banja Luka, and called for those guilty of war crimes to be brought to justice.

The victims in the Prijedor area were killed over the past three days when 20 houses were bombed or burnt out, local representatives of the Muslim organisation, Merhamet, reported to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The Serbian police in Prijedor denied accusations that this latest round of death amounted to an intensification of campaigns of 'ethnic cleansing' and said they were investigating only seven deaths. All were 'crime-related', said the police chief, Bogan Delic.

Peter Kessler, the UNHCR spokesman in Zagreb, said the organisation's field workers who toured Prijedor yesterday 'saw scores of homes burnt and attacked that were consistent with Merhamet's reports of death and destruction'. He added: 'Some elderly have been burnt to death when their homes were firebombed.'

Kris Janowski, of the UNHCR in Sarajevo, made it clear the field officer in Prijedor himself did not see any bodies but judged Merhamet's report to be accurate after touring neighbourhoods where the attacks were reported to have occurred. The killings were believed to have been carried out in retribution after the return of the bodies of six Serbian policemen killed in frontline fighting around Doboj.

The UN had received reports that women from minorities had been raped and some civilians had been killed when grenades were tossed into their houses, Mr Kessler said.

The killings have led the International Committee of the Red Cross to consider an unprecedented mass evacuation of Muslims and Croats from Prijedor, said Lisa Jones, a spokeswoman in Zagreb. 'We haven't made any decision yet to carry out a mass evacuation. That option is clearly being considered and being discussed with authorities.'