Serbia Forces Refugees To Fight in Bosnian War

BELGRADE is forcing Serb refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia to return to their homes for military service and is threatening to punish those who refuse, United Nations officials and human rights activists say.

In doing so, authorities of the Serb-dominated rump Yugoslav union of Serbia and Montenegro are violating their own laws, which forbid the mobilization of refugees unless the country is under direct military threat.

Some UN officials and political analysts here believe the development is closely linked to an accord signed last month between Yugoslavia and Croatia.

Publicly, the accord was presented as opening a process of normalizing relations. But many analysts believe the real intention of Belgrade and Zagreb is to freeze their own serious disputes so they can synchronize military actions against Bosnia's Muslim-led government in a bid to force it to accept the proposed ethnic division of the republic.

The ethnic proxy armies of Serbia and Croatia in Bosnia both require additional troops for such an effort, experts say.

The mobilization of refugees in rump Yugoslavia parallels a similar effort that has been under way for weeks in Croatia, UN officials say. Croatian authorities have also reportedly press ganged into Bosnian Croat militias an estimated 3,000 of their own male citizens who were born in Bosnia.

In other apparently related developments, UN officers, eyewitnesses, and news reports increasingly speak of large movements of Yugoslav and Croatian Army troops into Bosnia.

Serbs mobilize

On Monday, the Bosnian Serb military leadership announced that it was taking a series of measures ``aimed at a mobilization ... of all available resources that would lead to a successful end to the war.''

Those measures include the mobilization of refugees, including women - who are needed for medical and supply units, the command said.

They said the mobilization decision was taken because ``the international community has decided to support the Muslims in the war option and to recognize the results of their struggle.''

UN officials and local human rights groups say Serb males among the 379,060 refugees sheltered in centers in Serbia and Montenegro began receiving mobilization notices in mid-January.

``We really do not know what the scale is,'' says Lyndall Sachs, a spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Belgrade.

In a five-day period beginning Jan. 21, UNHCR offices in Belgrade and several other cities received complaints from about 100 recipients of draft notices, Ms. Sachs says.

She says that notices were given to men of all ages, including some previously excused on medical grounds from serving in the Belgrade-sponsored forces of the self-declared Serb states in Bosnia and Croatia. ``In some instances, people were handed notices by Yugoslav Army officers, while in others, civilians handed them out,'' Sachs says, adding, ``We also have reports of people getting patriotic pep talks.''

The notices instructed recipients to report by certain dates at specific locations and ``those who failed to show up are subject to arrest and imprisonment,'' Sachs says. Most of those who have reported appear to be taken first for military training at a Yugoslav Army base in the southern Serbian city of Nis before being sent to Bosnia or Croatia, she says.

Many recipients, however, went into hiding, according to Sachs and Natasha Kandic, the director of the Humanitarian Law Fund, a Belgrade-based human rights organization.

``Nobody really has information on how many people they catch and how many they put on trial,'' Ms. Kandic says. ``The refusals to go and fight are so great that those who are supposed to round people up do not have the infrastructure to do it.''

A mobilization order issued to a refugee - whose name has been obscured for safety reasons - is headlined, ``Our Fatherland Is Calling You.''

Notices to refugees

The notice goes on to say, ``Our forefathers fought and defended heroically and with dignity our land and our people.'' And, ``Let us demonstrate that we are their worthy successors. It is your turn now to fulfill your patriotic duty.''

The recipient, Kandic says, was born in Serbia but had lived most of his life in Bosnia.

Sachs says UNHCR has raised the issue with the Yugoslav Foreign Ministry and refugee officials, who gave assurances that they were ``doing their utmost to see that refugee rights were protected.''

Sylvana Foa, the Geneva-based UNHCR spokeswoman, told the Monitor that the agency formally protested to rump Yugoslav officials over the refugee mobilizations earlier this week.

Ms. Foa also says that UNHCR has protested to Belgrade and Bosnian Serb leaders against a new wave of violent ethnic cleansing against Muslims and Croats living in and around the western Bosnian Serb-held stronghold of Banja Luka.

``We are seeing a real flurry of serious protection problems in the last few days. There was a multiple rape case, a severe beating of a senior citizen, evictions, and rounding up of Muslims,'' Foa says.

UNHCR and the International Committee of the Red Cross have been evacuating an average of 40 non-Serbs from the region every week ``who have had direct threats,'' Foa says.

She says the new increase in ethnic cleansing appears to have been prompted by the arrivals in the area of Serb refugees searching for homes after being forced to leave the Muslim-held central city of Zenica.

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