WHILE attention is focused elsewhere in former Yugoslavia, Serbia is pursuing a brutal campaign of repression against Muslims in the Sandzak region bordering Bosnia, human rights monitors and Western diplomats say.
Hundreds of Muslims, most of them impoverished and illiterate peasants, have been terrorized and beaten in recent months during police raids on their homes, these sources say.
Authorities, they say, have also jailed and tortured more than 50 key activists of the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), which rallies Muslims in the Sandzak and those in Bosnia.
Thousands of Muslims have fled the region because of what many observers consider a deliberate policy of ethnic cleansing.
Belgrade accuses the SDA of plotting an insurrection aimed at joining the Muslim-dominated Sandzak to Bosnia, and it denies the allegations of massive human rights abuses.
Serbs deny mass abuses
``When it comes to such reports, we approach them with much reservation,'' says Margit Savovic, the human rights minister of the rump Yugoslav federation of Serbia and Montenegro.
``Individual cases, I'm sure exist,'' she continued. ``However, to say there were mass occurrences cannot be accepted.''
A Western diplomat countered: ``The Serbs look at their large minorities as cancers in the Serbian state. And if you want to excise this ethnic tumor, you have to create an atmosphere of fear and terror.''
Although it is a remote, mountainous area with few resources, the Sandzak's location makes it strategically and politically important to President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia.
Muslims constitute just over half the population of the region, which straddles the border of Montenegro and Serbia, providing the latter with its passageway to the Adriatic. The Sandzak is sandwiched on its other axis between Bosnia and Serbia's restive province of Kosovo.
Sandzak Muslims have for centuries maintained family, cultural, and trade links with those in Bosnia. Many settled there and have fought against the Belgrade-backed Bosnian Serbs. Most Sandzak Muslims registered themselves as Yugoslavs. But when the former federation began collapsing in 1991, the SDA was formed to promote their interests.
Just as ethnic-based political groups were doing elsewhere in the disintegrating federation, the SDA held a referendum in October 1991 on autonomy for the Sandzak, drawing Belgrade's ire.
Serious repression began in the Sandzak the following spring. More than 50 Sandzak Muslims have been killed or are missing and presumed murdered, including 20 abducted by suspected Bosnian Serb gunmen from a train on the Bosnian border in February 1993.
Bosnian Serb fighters, reportedly joined by Yugoslav troops and police, raided Muslim hamlets just inside the Sandzak. Homes were looted, burned, and their inhabitants driven away.
Authorities in Serbia's half of the Sandzak last spring launched house searches and arrested dozens of SDA activists on charges of undermining rump Yugoslavia's territorial integrity.
In response to the repression, the SDA issued a memorandum reiterating its demand for autonomy and urging that the issue be settled by the international peace conference on former Yugoslavia. It also requested the deployment of United Nations troops.
Crackdown began in 1993
The crackdown culminated with the issuing of an arrest warrant in September for the SDA's hard-line president, Sulejman Ugljanin, who was visiting Turkey, where he remains.
Of those detained, 25 went on trial in February in Novi Pazar, the region's main town. The case was postponed after the judge was injured in a car accident.
In January a crackdown that still continues began on Montenegro's side of Sandzak. Another 23 top SDA activists were arrested and tortured, says a new report by the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Fund.
The human rights group says several prisoners were taken to the Bosnian Serb-held towns of Foca and Cajnice, where they were tortured before being taken back to Montenegro.
One man, the report says, ``was made to count blows out loud and had to start again from the beginning when the pain made him miss a blow.''
In another facet of the crackdown, the report says, police are terrorizing Muslims of the Pester area with raids allegedly intended to unearth weapons caches. Those who deny having arms are brutally abused, says the report.
``You get the same stories from everyone you talk to,'' says an international human rights monitor requesting anonymity. ``We don't know the exact figure, but hundreds have been beaten up.''
Human rights monitors and Western diplomats say they believe Belgrade apparently seeks to accomplish several goals through the continuous repression in the Sandzak.
``By putting these guys in prison, you accomplish a couple of things,'' the Western diplomat says. ``First, you silence the voices that might draw attention to a part of the world that the Serbs don't want a focus on.''
More ominously, observers say that Belgrade wants to encourage the flight abroad of the Sandzak's terrorized Muslims. ``I think as soon as there is a settlement, Sandzak Muslims will flood into [Muslim areas of] Bosnia and the Serbs want to encourage this,'' the human rights monitor says.