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Signs of `Cleansing' Inside Serbia

Human rights groups, Muslim leaders decry a wave of murder, kidnapping, and arson in towns along Serbia's border with Bosnia

By Jonathan S. LandaySpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 4, 1993



PRIJEPOLJE, YUGOSLAVIA

A NOTE of doubt stole into Senata's voice as she expressed the conviction that her father was still alive.

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"You can only hope for the best. But you really don't know," she admitted, asking that her real name not be used out of concern for her father's safety.

More than two months have passed since he and 17 other Muslim citizens of Serbia and Montenegro were abducted from a train that was stopped, allegedly by Bosnian Serb militiamen, as it crossed a sliver of Bosnia-Herzegovina that juts into rump Yugoslavia.

Despite vows of swift action by senior Yugoslav officials, including Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who visited Prijepolje several weeks after the Feb. 22 kidnappings, the whereabouts of the abductees remains unknown and no arrests have been made.

"We are all convinced that the state will do something," Senata said as she and relatives of other missing men spoke in guarded tones in the office of a Muslim humanitarian organization here.

Human rights groups and Muslim leaders say they believe all 18 are dead, victims of a wave of murder, kidnapping, and arson along Bosnia's border with the Sandzak, a Muslim-dominated region of mountains, river valleys, and a few paved roads straddling the corners of southwestern Serbia and northern Montenegro. Serb irregulars blamed

Human rights groups and Muslim leaders say the attacks are part of a Belgrade-orchestrated policy to drive Serbian Muslims from the frontier and destroy their centuries-old familial, economic, and cultural ties with Bosnian Muslims.

Serbian and Montenegrin officials acknowledge the violence. But they vehemently deny the charges of deliberate "ethnic cleansing." Instead, they blame the attacks on marauding bands of Bosnian Serb irregulars.

More than 50 Muslims from Serbia and Montenegro have been killed or have gone missing along the Sandzak frontier since the Belgrade-backed Bosnian Serbs began carving out a self-declared state from their former Yugoslav republic in March 1992.

In addition to the train abductions, Muslims have been kidnapped from a bus, a hospital in the Serbian town of Priboj, and their villages. Men, women, and even infants have been reported missing. Most are known or believed to have been taken to Bosnia, where some have been held for exchange with Bosnian Serb fighters captured by the Muslim-led Bosnian Army.

Unknown numbers of Muslims reportedly have been beaten and harassed on the Serbian and Montenegrin sides of the border. Hundreds have been driven from their homes, many of which were subsequently looted and torched.

Only one suspect was ever arrested, and he was eventually released. The result is an ongoing exodus from the Sandzak of Muslims whose families have lived for generations in the region, one of the last in former Yugoslavia abandoned by the Ottoman Turks. Roughly 9,500 people have fled not only from the border region, but from deeper inside Serbia's districts of Priboj and Prijepolje and from the Pljevlja district in Montenegro.

"Only three families remain in my village. There were 17 families there," says Hami Asceric, who last week left his hamlet of Zaostro after 10 nearby Muslim homes were set aflame.

Many of the displaced have sought refuge in western Europe. Those who remain receive aid from humanitarian groups because they are disqualified from state assistance since they are not refugees from foreign countries.