Outrage at Stoltenberg's 'Serb' gaffe

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Bosnia's Muslim-led government yesterday called into question the impartiality of the United Nations mediator, Thorvald Stoltenberg, after he said Bosnia's Muslims and Croats were really Serbs.

"I don't understand him and I don't like what he has said," declared Bosnia's ambassador to the Nordic countries, Izet Serdarevic.

Mr Stoltenberg's blunder appeared to confirm all the Bosnian government's worst suspicions about the UN's approach to the Bosnian conflict. The government has long complained that the UN's neutral image masks a tendency to sympathise with the Serbs or submit to their pressure.

Mr Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian foreign minister who became the UN's special envoy in former Yugoslavia in 1993, made his offending remarks in a speech in Oslo on 31 May. According to a videotape of the speech broadcast by Swedish television last Sunday, he said: "Ethnic war? I don't think so. They are all Serbs."

He continued: "There are Serbs who call themselves Serbs, and that is fine. Then you have the Muslims. They are Serbs who have gone over to Islam. And very many of those who today call themselves Croats and dress as them are also Serbs."

Many Serb and Croat nationalists contend that the Bosnian Muslims are not a "real" nationality, since they speak essentially the same language as Serbs and Croats and are descended from Slavs who converted to Islam during Ottoman rule. Such theories have been used to promote concepts such as Greater Serbia, Greater Croatia and "ethnic cleansing", or the forced expulsion of Muslims from their native areas.

Mr Stoltenberg insisted that his remarks had been taken out of context and that his main theme had been that the people of former Yugoslavia would one day live in peace again. "I am not pro-Serb. Actually I wish that the Serbs would give back all the land they have captured in Bosnia," he said.

But the row deepened after the European Union mediator, Carl Bildt, denied that Mr Stoltenberg had made the remarks, despite the evidence. Mr Bildt, a former Swedish prime minister, also said Norwegian reporters who attended the Oslo meeting had signed a statement confirming that Mr Stoltenberg had not made the remarks. Several reporters who were present said they had signed nothing.