Muslim Foreign Ministers Gather to Aid Bosnians

No other issue since the Gulf war has moved the Muslim world more deeply than Serbia's attack on Bosnia

AS Islamic foreign ministers open an emergency meeting here today to press for international military aid to Bosnia-Herzegovina, there are hints that Muslim countries may defy a United Nations arms embargo on the embattled republic if their call is ignored.

Cyrus Vance and Lord Owen, co-chairmen of UN-sponsored peace talks on the former Yugoslavia, have been invited to the meeting, and they are expected to urge more patience in the increasingly restless Islamic world.

But they will not find a sympathetic audience at the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Although OIC members "want to be within the framework of international legality," OIC Secretary General Hamid Algabid said yesterday, "if there is no hope [in the peace talks], countries are sovereign. Maybe they will decide on something else."

The emergency meeting of the 47-nation group - expected to be joined this week by Albania, Kyrgyzstan, and Zanzibar - was called in the wake of several Bosnian missions to Arab Gulf countries seeking political support from their fellow Muslims.

Serbia's attack on predominantly Muslim Bosnia and the siege of Sarajevo have moved public opinion throughout the Arab world more deeply than any other issue since the Gulf war, prompting widespread calls for more active intervention by Islamic governments on the Bosnians' behalf.

"Islamic countries have a responsibility ... because there are Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina and also because the world community, and Europe in particular, did not take adequate steps to stop the slaughter in Bosnia," Bosnian Foreign Minister Haris Silajdzic said in an interview yesterday.

The two-day conference is expected to back Bosnia's demand for an end to the international weapons embargo against its poorly armed fighters, and for military intervention under UN auspices if Serbia does not honor a cease-fire.

"The world should either stop the aggression, or let us stop it," Dr. Silajdzic argues. "The alternative is to lie down and die."

He warns that if the international community continues to stand aside while Serbian forces seize more Bosnian territory, "another 100,000 Bosnians will die," in addition to the more than 100,000 victims already claimed by the nine-month conflict.

Arab Gulf countries have so far offered humanitarian aid in cash and kind totaling approximately $100 million to the beleaguered Bosnians, and several are ready to offer men and money to a UN military force, according to Mr. Algabid, a former prime minister of Niger.

They are now threatening to go further if the UN Security Council maintains its opposition to any UN military intervention. "I think all the Islamic countries" would try to break the UN arms embargo if the international body did not act, Silajdzic predicts, "because it would mean the Security Council was condemning Bosnia-Herzegovina to death."

"There is such a climate, everybody says `enough is enough'," he adds. "We shall accept arms from anyone, because it is our right. We shall do whatever is in our power to stay alive."

So far only Iran, arguing that it is every Muslim country's duty to arm the Bosnians, has attempted to break the weapons embargo, reportedly flying a planeload of guns into Zagreb that was later turned back by UN inspectors.

But strong public pressure is building within the Muslim world. "Bosnia is an issue that worries leaders and public opinion," Algabid says. "At all levels, people are really concerned."

The West's continued inaction over Bosnia, widely perceived in the Arab world as unthinkable if the victims had been Christian, carries with it "a real risk" of further radicalization in Muslim nations, Algabid warns. Already, radical Islamic groups such as the Gamaa Islamiya in Egypt are using Bosnia as an anti-Western rallying cry.

Bosnian and OIC diplomats are expected to argue this point in their continuing consultations with UN Security Council members.

"This [issue] could put relations between the West and the Islamic world on the wrong track or on the right track," Silajdzic argues. "If people are looking for a confrontation between Islam and the West, this is a chance. If they want cooperation, this is also a chance."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.