Serbia accused of blackmail on camps

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The Independent Online
ZAGREB - Serbs are blackmailing the world with a reported offer to turn over Muslim and Croat prisoners, hoping to 'cleanse' Bosnia of thousands more non- Serbs with foreign help, international officials said yesterday.

They said any move to empty the camps has them cornered: should aid workers further the Serbian purge or abandon the inmates to dingy Bosnian prisons? 'They have placed the relief agencies in a very tough spot,' said a senior Western offical.

Late on Wednesday, a United States official in Washington said Serb authorities had indicated they might open the camps if the international community assume responsibility for the prisoners. Officials in Zagreb would not confirm that such an offer had been made. 'For the moment we can only confirm that negotiations are in progress with all parties in Bosnia to liberate these people from the camps,' said Gabriela Chaves, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

However, the senior Western offical said: 'The report is credible. Serbs have in recent days expressed some willingness to turn some or all prisoners out of the camps. 'But the question is this: do we abet the Serbs and take these people out? Or do we decline, aware that they are weak and unhealthy and would not fare at all well if left in the camps or simply released into Bosnia?'

US intelligence agencies estimate there are about 170,000 people in the camps, mostly run by Serbs although some are operated by Croats and Muslims. The ICRC has so far inspected more than 11,000 prisoners in Bosnia and is pressing for their release. 'But there is a real problem. You can't just fling open the doors.

'Many of them are safer in the camps than outside, where they will only fall victim to this 'ethnic cleansing' policy,' said an ICRC official. 'How can we look after this amount of people?'

Already, the United Nations is scrambling to stop the most ambitious 'ethnic cleansing' drive of the Yugoslav war. Serbs in northern Bosnia are using intimidation to drive about 200 families out of their homes each day, a UN spokesman said yesterday.

'Unfortunately, our efforts right now look like we may not be able to bring 'ethnic cleansing' to a halt,' said Peter Kessler, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. 'And if the terror tactics continue, we could see hundreds of thousands of people fleeing Bosnia.'

The UNHCR has said it will not be 'blackmailed' into helping to evacuate terrified families but aid workers admit they are severely squeezed by the new prison camp dilemma. 'The Serbs seem to be very good at this. Once again they are backing the relief workers into a corner,' said John Fawcett of the International Rescue Committee.

The Western official said the Serbs might refuse to release the inmates. 'But if they do, I believe the humanitarian and health considerations overrule the West's general preference that these people not be moved out of Bosnia.'