Gypsies fall prey to Serb 'cleansing' blitz: Terrifying and violent attacks are being used to force minorities to leave northern Bosnia, Robert Block reports from Klasnice

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The Independent Online
WHILE Bosnian Serb officials talk of ethnic tolerance and respect for international humanitarian accords, the battle-hardened soldiers are finishing the final stages of 'ethnic cleansing' in Bosnia with mortar and machine-gun attacks against defenceless villagers miles away from the front lines.

International relief organisations and terrified residents of minority neighbourhoods and villages in the Banja Luka region say violent attacks against individuals and property have intensified not only in terms of the number of incidents but also in the methods and equipment used to carry them out.

Protection officers with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said yesterday that one of the most terrifying recent attacks took place early on Thursday against a Gypsy shanty town on the edge of Klasnice, a roadside village about 15km (9 miles) north of Banja Luka and 50km from any active front line. The shanty town has been a frequent target for Serbian gunmen since November.

According to the UNHCR, the worst of those attacks came on Thursday morning, when Bosnian Serb soldiers fired on the ramshackle neighbourhood of unfinished brick houses from three mortar positions - one in the woods on a hill overlooking the neighbourhood and two along the highway about a kilometre east. Two mortars narrowly missed one house. Most landed in a nearby field. But many houses were hit by gunfire. While no one was injured, the attack was successful in forcing residents to leave the country.

Yesterday morning, scores of adults, and grimy, barefoot children stood in the frozen mud that passes for a main road through the neighbourhood. They were all too frightened to talk about what happened. In the background one family was packing their belongings on to a horse-drawn cart. 'We're not going to say anything now,' the neighbourhood leader said. 'It's for our own security. You must understand we're sitting in Serbian hands. When we leave here we will tell everything.'

Later in Banja Luka, the man met UNHCR officials to inform them of his plans for all 250 people living in the shanty town to leave Klasnice in the next few days for UN-protected areas in neighbouring Croatia whether they had official permission or not.

'This is a spontaneous population movement,' said Louis Gentile, head of the Banja Luka UNHCR office. 'We knew that, given the level of harassment, this had to happen sooner or later. These people have no visas for anywhere and they are not going to wait around for one. The local Serbian authorities have given them permission to leave and they are going to head across the border at Gradiska (Croatia) into the UNPA (UN protected areas).'

With fewer countries granting visas and asylum to the victims of the war in Bosnia, and with persecution of minorities continuing unabated, UNHCR officials are anticipating that the stream of people trying to leave northern Bosnia will grow into a human river that will flow, unwelcomed, into Croatia. Once across the Croatian border, the refugees will face an uncertain future under the gaze of a battalion of Nepalese peace-keepers whose mandate was to watch out for Serbian attempts to breach the frontier, not to look after refugees.

But pressure on non-Serbs to leave northern Bosnia is at an all- time high. Life for the remaining Muslims, Croats and Gypsies is terrifying. Most have been dismissed from their jobs. Evictions from houses and apartments are routine. In the once all-Muslim Vrbanja district of Banja Luka, remaining Muslim residents tell how they barricade themselves in their homes at night and stand guard with pitchforks and wooden clubs behind shuttered windows and reinforced doors. Nightly attacks have left at least 10 Muslims and Croats dead in recent months. Countless others say they have been beaten, shot at or raped by Serbs who tell them they should leave the country.

UNHCR officials say these attacks are carried out with impunity. Reports to the police only end up in more beatings or worse.

Vitomir Popovic, the 'deputy prime minister' of Republica Srpska, the self-styled Bosnian-Serb Republic, denies all this. He said on Thursday that his country was a 'state organised in accordance with the law'. 'We respect all international humanitarian treaties,' he said. 'Of course there are problems because of the war.' Mr Popovic admitted that while there was room for improvement in his government's record protecting minorities: 'There is a problem with those people who are not loyal to the republic.' He gave no details.

Bosnian Serb officials warn against believing minority statements. They say Muslims and Croats will claim terrible things happened to them because they believe they will get better treatment from international aid groups if they say they have been abused. Officials also try to deflect responsibility for the attacks, pointing out that Serbs and Croats are being driven out of Muslim-held parts of Bosnia.

While Mr Popovic and other officials say they do not condone 'ethnic cleansing', the government does facilitate the exodus of minorities by granting them exit visas. In the case of Klasnice's Gypsies, the village's Serbian mayor has promised not only exit papers but also free transport out of the country.

NEW YORK - The UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali said yesterday he would not hesitate to use Nato air strikes in self-defence in Bosnia if UN peace-keepers come under deliberate attack, AFP reports.

In a letter to the Security Council, Mr Boutros-Ghali set forth plans under which air power would be used, if necessary, in self-defence against a deliberate attack against UN peace-keepers reopening the airport in Tuzla or relieving UN forces in Srebrenica and Zepa.