The Foreign Office expressed increasing concern over the reports of torture, killing and degradation in the so-called concentration camps and said it was pressing for immediate access to all detention centres by UN refugee officials and the International Red Cross.
'There is compelling evidence that something nasty is going on over there,' one Whitehall source said. 'We need international access to find out whether a few psychopaths have simply gone haywire, or a government has gone psychopathic.'
At the same time, there was considerable doubt over the extent and origin of some of the 'camp' allegations. Sources close to the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva warned of disinformation from both the warring sides. The US government backtracked strongly on a Monday statement confirming torture and killings in detention centres. And the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), also in Geneva, said statements by one of its delegates in Sarajevo yesterday, appearing to confirm the existence of 'concentration camps', had been misinterpreted.
The pro-independence Bosnian government in Sarajevo meanwhile called for an urgent UN Security Council session on Bosnia, accusing the Serbian side of genocide and demanding the lifting of an international arms ban to allow Bosnia's Muslims and Croats to defend themselves. 'You can compare the weapons we possess to children's toys' alongside those of the Serbs, a Bosnian spokesman said.
He said Bosnia had formally asked Britain on Monday, in its current role as president of the European Community, to take action to stop air attacks on Bosnia by the former Yugoslav federal air force.
Following the widespread reports on Monday that Serbian forces in Bosnia were holding thousands of Muslims and Croats in 'concentration camps', the Serbian side not only denied the claims but responded in kind. SRNA, the news agency of the self-proclaimed Serbian Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, said 6,000 Serbs had been killed in 'concentration camps' run by Bosnian Muslims or Croats.
The agency said almost 20,000 Serbs, including women and children, were being held in 22 such camps in Sarajevo and elsewhere in Bosnia. It gave a detailed list of the alleged camps and their commanders.
At a Belgrade news conference, a Bosnian-Serb spokesman said: 'We have prisoners of war. But they are being treated in a way which conforms to the Geneva conventions.'
He invited journalists and Red Cross teams to visit detention centres in Serbian-held areas. In a somewhat cynical reference to the widely criticised racial policy initiated by the Serbs, the spokesman accused Muslims and Croats of an 'ethnic cleansing' programme to clear Serbs from northern and central Bosnia.
Amid the claims and counter-claims, the US State Department yesterday poured cold water on a tough statement the previous day from its own press spokesman, Richard Boucher.
Mr Boucher had said that he could confirm the existence of Serbian detention centres and that 'there have been abuses, torturing and killings taking place in those centres'.
Yesterday, however, an Assistant Secretary of State, Thomas Niles, said there had been a 'misreading' of the spokesman's remarks. 'What Mr Boucher said was that we have seen these reports and we are deeply concerned about them. He did not say we could confirm them. We cannot confirm reports that these detention facilities . . . are being used for the systematic torture and murder of people detained.'
Diplomatic sources in London said the US turnabout was a further indication of Washington's 'patchy' policy towards the former Yugoslavia and of its desire to keep out of what it considers a potential Vietnam-like quagmire.
In Geneva, a UNHCR spokesman, while expressing no doubt that there were human rights abuses on both sides in Bosnia, said Monday's remarks by its delegate in Sarajevo, Peter Kessler, had been misinterpreted.
'We never did confirm the existence of so-called concentration camps,' the spokesman said. 'We do get second-hand reports about people being held and we pass them on to the relevant bodies, in this case the International Committee of the Red Cross.
An ICRC spokesman, Pierre Gauthier, said in Geneva yesterday that the International Red Cross was pressing 'on all fronts' to gain access to all detention camps in Bosnia.
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