Prisoner releases fall short of deadline

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The Independent Online


Fewer than a third of the 900 prisoners taken during Bosnia's three and a half years of war were released by the deadline of midnight local time last night, but most other conditions set in the Dayton peace accords appeared to have been fulfilled.

Most of the 225 prisoners set free were brought by truck to a mass handover at Sarajevo airport last night. As dusk fell at Black Dog, the freezing crossing point between Bosnian Serb and Muslim-Croat territory, 16 Croat prisoners held by the Serbs had not yet arrived from the north. At the same time, 220 Serbs, mostly captured by the Croats in the summer offensive, were said to be on the way northwards from Mostar.

The Chief of Defence Staff, Field Marshal Sir Peter Inge, visiting the headquarters of the British 4th Armoured Brigade, at Sipovo, said there were "many more plusses than minuses." He added: "The big issue, of course, is the prisoners of war."

The peace implementation force, I-For, does not officially recognise the idea of exchange. Prisoner release is supposed to be unconditional. But in Bosnia prisoners are a form of currency, albeit a rare one as few were taken alive. Yesterday's attempts to secure the release of about 250, half the total in the British area, were between Croats and Serbs. The Muslims have still shown no sign of moving on this most delicate of issues.

The British component of I-For remained adamant that its primary task is to secure the large area held by Bosnian Croats that is to be vacated by 3 March and handed over to the Serbs. It will not be drawn into investigating war crimes allegations, Field Marshal Inge said. "Every commander to whom I've spoken says they simply don't have the resources and the ability to do detailed investigations. That is up to the [UN] tribunal. What they mustn't do is take them away from their primary task, which is implementation of the Dayton agreement."

Another delicate issue was apparent yesterday as we drove into the area to be handed back to the Serbs. Sipovo was not wrecked by fighting, but by the Croats after the Serbs fled. Smoke rose from houses in the deserted town along the road now lined by I-For direction signs. British soldiers at Sipovo said they had seen six houses afire on Thursday night.

From yesterday I-For is responsible for "securing" the area. But it is not clear what that means, and there is disagreement about it within the Nato force. Some say it means military security, not law and order. But Major Chris Claridge, who commands the Royal Fusiliers, said he was the de facto keeper of the peace in the area.

"There are no authorities at the moment," he said. It was not his role to stop looters and arsonists, he said. But it was "an implied task''. He went on: ''We are trying to stop them. If we see someone looting a house, we photograph them. We tell them, 'If we see that house burning, we'll come after you.' Such evidence will also be of use to new civil authorities when they are established."

"It's not an I-For responsibility,'' he added, ''but until the local authorities are set up I-For will do what it can."