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

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

"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.

"This is a classic example of ethnic cleansing," charges Smajo Polinac, the head of the Party for Democratic Action (SDA), the Sandzak's main Muslim party. "This regime is responsible." The SDA seeks deployment of UN peacekeeping troops in the area. Muslim fanaticism?

Yugoslav officials accuse the SDA of exploiting and exaggerating the situation to fan ethnic tensions and win its goal of autonomy for the Sandzak, where Muslims constitute 64 percent of the population. State officials argue that many SDA leaders are Muslim fanatics working with their party's founder, Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, to create an Islamic state.

Charges of deliberate Serbian ethnic cleansing, have been backed by eyewitness reports of attacks. In numerous cases, witnesses and survivors say, Yugoslav police and Army troops have themselves joined in or committed attacks. The Yugoslav Army denies such allegations.

"Eight reservists came and pointed machine guns at us. They told us to move out of our house," says Ramo Husovic, who was driven from the hamlet of Kukurovici in October. "The Army was there. Our Army."

Since then, according to residents, every Muslim home has been torched in Kukurovici, where Bosnian Serb gunmen reportedly killed three Muslims and wounded two others Feb. 18 in the presence of Yugoslav troops.

Human rights groups, including the private Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Fund, note that Yugoslav security forces control the points that Bosnian Serbs must use to cross the border. Army officials refused permission for a visit to the frontier.

There have also been serious incidents farther from the border, particularly in Pljevlja, a stronghold of Yugoslavia's powerful ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party, a Milosevic-nurtured paramilitary group accused of war crimes in Bosnia and Croatia.

Party gunmen openly use Pljevlja as a base for operations in eastern Bosnia. They even seized the district's main town, also called Pljevlja, briefly last year after the arrest of their local leader, Ceko Dacevic, for suspected attacks on Muslim-owned properties. He was freed recently for lack of evidence.

Unknown attackers last week bombed for a second time the office of the Muslim director of Pljevlja's dental clinic. He quit, vacating the last senior municipal post held by a Muslim. `Cleansing' charges

SDA leaders buttress charges of ethnic attacks by citing Serbian Radical Party chief Vojislav Seselj's calls for the cleansing of Muslims from a 18-mile-wide belt along the Sandzak's border with Bosnia.

But Jovo Petrovic, chief aide to the president of the Pljevlja district, ridicules the SDA charges. "These are fascist and nationalist claims. I'm concerned that foreign political kitchens are preparing these Muslims as radicals."

"We are putting the maximum of our forces into protecting the people. But there are 142 kilometers [88 miles] of border and you cannot line up soldiers one next to the other along it," Mr. Petrovic adds. "There are guerrillas who come across. They are not disciplined. Some Serbs have suffered as well."

Muslim political leaders and citizens say that the situation could quickly be improved if Belgrade took decisive steps to reassure the Sandzak's Muslims of their protection and safety.

"It would be enough for Milosevic to say, `Bring them back,' " Zevdzo Huric, the SDA leader in Prijepolje, says of those kidnapped from the train. "But our impression is that [Milosevic] had a different goal here."

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