At least 17 Bosnian citizens, including two children and one woman, have been detained by Serb police while travelling on a road into Sarajevo, according to the Bosnian government, despite Nato's obligations under the Dayton peace plan to provide a safe environment for the free movement of civilians.
Officials from I-For (Nato's peace implementation force) have repeatedly denied receiving any reports about the alleged abductions in the Serb- held suburb of Ilidza, and last night issued a statement saying the government had failed to follow up its demands for action with specific details of the alleged attacks.
Hasan Muratovic, the Bosnian minister responsible for liaison with I- For, said the government had raised the matter with I-For on five occasions: twice through the tripartite Joint Military Commission - one attended by Lieutenant-General Michael Walker, Nato's land commander; twice through letters, the first dated 29 December; and once at a meeting with Nato officers working for Brigadier-General Louis Zeller, French commander in Sarajevo.
The Nato statement admitted Gen Zeller had received the letters and "continues to pursue the matter with the appropriate parties". The approach to Gen Walker was described as "informal"; the general agreed to investigate "if specific details were given, with evidence". I-For would address the issue at the next Commission meeting, tomorrow, and in talks with the mayor of Ilidza today.
Col Vladimir Rybnikov, who heads the UN Civilian Police (Civpol), also sent a report detailing the incidents - without independent confirmation - to Gen Zeller on Monday. "What we know at the moment, according to information from the Bosnian liaison office, is that 16 people are missing in the area of Ilidza," Col Rybnikov said yesterday afternoon, before Mr Muratovic upped the toll to 17.
"The response from the Serbian side was that they could not confirm that these people were in prison."
At the police station in Ilidza, one of five suburbs due to revert to government rule, a Serb official told us to return to discuss the issue with the "inspector for strangers". Asked whether any Bosnians had been arrested, he replied: "There is nobody here now." But a senior Serb officer told Colonel Rybnikov he believed the drivers were being held to bump up the numbers for prisoner swaps: "They are looking for more people to put on the list for future exchanges," he quoted the officer as saying.
Mr Muratovic's list includes Mehmed Kusundzija, a truck driver reported missing on Christmas Day with two colleagues. Mr Kusundzija had telephoned his family to tell them he was setting off for Sarajevo, but never reached home. A few days later, the family said, an unidentified man telephoned to say Mr Kusundzija was in good health at the Ilidza police station, and would be released this week. The family heard Mr Kusundzija's voice in the back-ground, but were not allowed to speak to him. The Hondo family, including two young children, was detained on 27 December, according to Mr Muratovic. And on New Year's Day, he added, one carload was stopped by Serb police, robbed but then released, while another car carrying three passengers was taken away.
"They [I-For] must act on this," Mr Muratovic said. The government has urged people not to use routes out of Sarajevo leading through Serb- held territory for the time being, and has asked I-For to reinstate armed escorts with UN peace-keepers through hostile land.
Colonel Rybnikov agrees; on Monday he told General Zeller's chief of staff: "The cancellation of military escorts has come too early."
I-For has said the issue is more suited to the International Police Task Force ordained by the Dayton agreement, which should answer to the civilian peace mission. Unfortunately, the civilian side, led by Carl Bildt, who is due to reach Sarajevo today, has yet to start its work.
FIRST US MEDAL
ZUPANJA, Croatia - The first US casualty of Nato's Bosnia peace mission flew to Germany yesterday, proudly showing off a Purple Heart medal awarded to him on Sunday after he was injured by an anti-tank mine. The blast blew the front off Martin John Begosh's vehicle and smashed his leg.