Mujahedin threats 'disturb' UN in Bosnia

British soldiers have been targeted by extremists, says Christopher Bellamy
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The Independent Online
The United Nations said yesterday it was "extremely disturbed" about threats to British soldiers and aid workers following the shooting of a Muslim soldier by a British peace-keeper. But UN sources denied there was an organised "vendetta" against British personnel in central Bosnia, as the British Defence Secretary, Michael Portillo, had told Parliament on Tuesday

The UN spokesman, Chris Gunness, said the UN will "hold the Bosnian government responsible for threats or action against British personnel".

British army patrols have been strengthened as a precaution and British drivers have been stopped from taking part in UN convoys, said Lieutenant Colonel Chris Vernon, the UN spokesman in Sarajevo.

As the ceasefire in Bosnia takes hold, all three factions have moved battle-weary units from the front line. On the Bosnian government side, these include extreme Muslim Mujahedin from other Islamic countries.

Their appearance in areas away from the front has put the UN peace-keeping forces on their guard and led to tension between the UN and Muslim forces in the past three weeks.

The Bosnian government army has continued to restrict UN's freedom of movement, even when the UN is trying to attend meetings with Bosnian commanders to discuss the ceasefire. However, military sources said recent incidents involving Mujahedin are probably the work of individuals who have been pulled out of the front line after being used as shock troops.

The UN has been negotiating with the Bosnian forces' commanders to get them to try and control the extreme Mujahedin element.

One group, which is estimated to number between 800 and 1,500 Mujahedin, is based in a factory in the village of Pobrijezja, near Zenica, in the Muslim heartland of central Bosnia. The number of Mujahedin has increased recently, probably owing to the recruitment of bitter, vengeful soldiers who were displaced from the former Muslim enclaves of Srebrenica and Zepa.

"They're not given a designation as such '1st Mujahedin battalion' or anything like that", a UN officer said yesterday.

"They're not exclusively foreign. They have people from former Yugoslavia and from external Muslim states".

Mujahedin have been sent to the front line in small groups and used as storm troopers in the most dangerous missions. When they return to areas populated by less orthodox Bosnian Muslims, they sometimes cause trouble. In Zenica, Mujahedin recently kidnapped a baby in a pram because they disapproved of the baby's Bosnian Muslim mother wearing a short skirt, and refused to release it until she dressed in traditional Muslim garb.

The Mujahedin, therefore, are unpopular with local Muslims and with the Bosnian government, but their prowess as shock troops means they are tolerated. Two years ago the Bosnian government command in the Vitez area, near Zenica, asked the British battalion to wipe out a group of about 40, but the British said that was outside their UN mandate.

Warnings of a possible "vendetta" followed an incident on 5 October when a British UN soldier shot and killed a Bosnian soldier in Donji Vakuf, which the Bosnians had recently captured from the Serbs. The British Army said he had fired in self defence.

On 10 October a vehicle carrying four UN military observers was ambushed between Bugojno and Novi Travnik, apparently by Mujahedin. Three of the four UN observers were from Muslim states.

On 22 October a Norwegian aid convoy was stopped by Mujahedin near Tuzla. The Mujahedin asked if they were British, but on being told they were Norwegian, let them go.

nWashington - The presidents of Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia will meet with the Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, in Moscow next Tuesday, delaying by a day the start of US-led peace talks, it was announced yesterday, AP reports. The announcement, made first by US officials in Washington, reflects US and Russian efforts to work together on any settlement of the Bosnian peace plan.