Red Cross voices fears for Muslim refugees

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The Independent Online
AMID REPORTS that the Bosnian Croat army is forcing thousands of Muslims to labour on the front lines in the siege of Mostar and with fighting between Muslims and Croats intensifying throughout Bosnia, fears are growing for the safety of Muslim refugees in Croatia.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) confirmed yesterday that Bosnian Croats were forcing Muslim captives to dig trenches and build military installations in the siege of Bosnia's second city, and that they have also summarily executed Muslim detainees.

The Bosnian Croat army said yesterday it has assigned 1,500 Muslim prisoners of war to manual labour, but denied that they were forced to work on front lines.

In Croatia proper, meanwhile, local authorities are harassing many of the 5,000 to 6,000 Muslim men, women and children being housed in the republic since they were brought out of Bosnian Serb prison camps in Bosnia last year. These former detainees are again at risk as the Croats and Muslims - former allies - engage in a bitter struggle for territory in Bosnia.

Shaken by the testimony of Muslim detainees being used as forced labour, the ICRC took the unusual step of breaking silence on the condition of detainees yesterday, confirming the report of forced labour that appeared in the Independent on Sunday at the weekend. Often criticised for remaining silent when it learns of abuse or atrocities, the grim testimony of Muslim detainees being held in a helidrome at Rodoc, close to Mostar, persuaded the organisation to go public. The ICRC found more than 2,000 frightened and malnourished detainees at the makeshift prison.

'Detainees are being forced to work on the front lines and this involves digging trenches and setting up military installations for their enemy (the Croats),' Yeta Serenson said yesterday by telephone from Zagreb.

She went on to speak of 'killings and woundings' of detainees, all of which is strictly forbidden under international humanitarian law. Other humanitarian aid sources said Muslim detainees shot by the captors 'have been dressed up in HVO army (Croatian) uniforms', to make it look as if they had been combatants. Ms Sorenson said the three sides in the conflict were all using detainees for forced labour in some 27 places of detention. However, the worst excesses appear to be taking place outside Mostar.

The reports of forced labour and killings of Muslims have reinforced the concern of international aid organisations and the UN over the condition of Mostar's 30,000 inhabitants, a figure that has been swollen by an unknown number of refugees. For the past six weeks the besieging Croats have refused to grant international aid organisations access to the city, although a small team of Spanish UN peace-keepers has entered Mostar on several occasions for brief talks.

The Croats, meanwhile, have threatened to boycott the Geneva peace talks unless Muslim forces allow relief supplies into a former monastery in the village of Nova Bila that is now a hospital.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), responsible for protecting the Muslim refugees in Croatia, is concerned for their safety, particularly since Croatia is known to be providing soldiers and weapons to fight in Bosnia against the mainly Muslim Bosnian government side.

Muslim refugees staying in what were once tourist hotels on Croatia's Dalmatian coast have been pressured to leave by local authorities looking to earn hard currency from tourism. While fighting rages between Croats and Bosnian government forces in central Bosnia, the UNHCR sees these refugees as especially vulnerable.

Mark Lawson, page 18

Wars waiting to happen, page 19

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