Prisoners in firing-line

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MOSTAR (Reuter) - Alija Turkovic squirms in pain, one hand clutching the metal frame of his hospital bed, the other fingering a gauze patch where his right eye should be. The Bosnian Muslim prisoner of war was wounded last week on the front line in Mostar while working as forced labour for Croats.

'We were filling sandbags and building a wall to protect pedestrians from snipers near Tito Bridge,' he said. 'I don't remember the blast, but I have shrapnel injuries so I suppose I was wounded by a shell.' Before he was wounded and evacuated to Split on the Croatian coast, Mr Turkovic, 45, was one of what human rights officials estimate are thousands of Muslim prisoners around Mostar forced to do manual labour daily under dangerous frontline conditions.

Such treatment violates the Geneva Conventions, but the United Nations says the Muslim and Serbian armies in Bosnia's civil war abuse their prisoners similarly.

Mr Turkovic's case is exceptional because he served as a volunteer for the Croatian Defence Council (HVO) until the morning of 30 July, when he was arrested in Mostar. He was taken as part of a well-documented Croatian sweep of the city after relations soured between between the HVO and Muslim-led government forces. The two forces had fought together against rebel Serbs in the early days of Bosnia's 16-month conflict. That alliance crumbled after a string of defeats left 70 per cent of Bosnia under Serbian control.

Fighting broke out between HVO and government forces in Mostar late last spring, and thousands of men like Mr Turkovic found themselves trapped in Croatian uniforms and Muslim skins. The fighting has devastated this ancient city, leaving most of the west bank of the Neretva river in the hands of Croats and the east bank under Muslim control.

'When the alliance collapsed, Croats in Mostar found themselves in an impossible position,' said one UN official. 'They had thousands of Muslims of dubious loyalty on their side of the line. The HVO had no choice but to arrest them, and then it couldn't release them for fear they would defect.' Mr Turkovic was held by night in the notorious heliodrome facility just outside Mostar. His days were spent digging trenches and building Croatian fortifications on the front line. 'There was no limit to the hours we worked,' Mr Turkovic rasped from his hospital bed. 'We worked until the job was done. The more we worked the more food we got.'

Three days before Mr Turkovic was wounded he was working with a crew of Muslim prisoners in Mostar when a shell landed on their position, killing five and wounding 12 others. Among the wounded was Mr Turkovic's best friend, Emir.

Stung by criticism of their human rights record around Mostar, Bosnian Croat officals have been restricting access to the city for UN and other relief officials. A token convoy of UN medicine passed through to Mostar on Thursday in what senior UN officials had hoped would signal the beginning of a more relaxed HVO attitude. But Croats turned back a convoy bound for the Muslim area yesterday.

UN sources say almost all Muslim males of fighting age on Mostar's west bank and in Croat-held areas to the north, south and west of the city have been arrested. With no men left to protect them, many Muslim women and children in these areas are being driven from their homes, the sources say. Some of the displaced Muslims have been taken to the front lines and been allowed to cross into Muslim-held territory.

Muslim and Serbian forces are forcing similar population transfers in territories they hold, boosting the process of 'ethnic cleansing'.