Under Pressure, Bosnian Serbs Free 16 Muslims


Under pressure from Washington and Belgrade, Bosnian Serbs on Thursday relented in their first head-on challenge to the Bosnian peace accord and freed 16 Muslims seized when they tried to travel through Serb-held territory relying on NATO guarantees.

With the releases, an immediate and growing crisis was relieved, but only after it exposed dangerous limitations to the role the North Atlantic Treaty Organization sees for itself in enforcing the essential element of the peace accord: freedom of movement.

Looking tired and subdued, the 15 men and one elderly woman were taken from the Serbs’ notorious Kula Prison outside Sarajevo in two stages--three in the morning and the rest in the afternoon. They were loaded into NATO armored personnel carriers, which drove them to emotional reunions with families.


Several of the newly freed, who told of beatings and robberies at the hands of their captors, were angry that NATO’s peace force, known by its acronym IFOR, had failed to provide escorts or other security along the road through the Serb-held suburb of Ilidza, a lifeline route that effectively determines whether or not the siege of the capital is truly lifted.

The NATO-led Implementation Force had declared the route open.

Freedom for the Muslims who tested the road came only after long negotiations Thursday among the Serbs, the Bosnian government and NATO officials.

The Serbs of Ilidza, a bastion of hard-line nationalism, apparently intended to remain defiant and hold on to their prisoners, acquiescing only after the intervention of Slobodan Milosevic, the president of neighboring Serbia, sources said.

“We had seven hours of negotiating and were getting nowhere,” said a senior U.N. official involved in the negotiations. “Then they got a telephone call from Belgrade and everything changed.”

Milosevic signed the peace accord on behalf of his onetime proteges, the Bosnian Serbs, but he has not always been able to force them to toe the line.

In Washington, the Clinton administration welcomed the freeing of the 16 Muslims and confirmed that the United States had pressed Serbian leaders--both Milosevic and Serbian authorities in Bosnia--heavily for their release.

Nicholas Burns, the State Department’s spokesman, said U.S. diplomats in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia and the rump Yugoslavia, had written a letter to Milosevic. And John Menzies, the U.S. ambassador to Bosnia-Herzegovina, had met with Serbian authorities in Ilidza twice Thursday, receiving early notice that the Muslims would be released.

In what appears to be an organized campaign of intimidation, Bosnian Serb gunmen and police in the Serb-held suburbs that are to revert to Muslim-Croatian government control have for weeks been stopping cars with non-Serbian license plates in their territory, despite the peace accord’s provision for free movement. There are numerous reports of motorists being shaken down, robbed--or worse.

One of the men who was released Thursday, 61-year-old Ramo Delalic, told The Times that he and two companions were beaten and kicked by a gang of armed, uniformed men who stopped their truck Christmas Day as it crossed Ilidza, returning from a delivery run for a clothing manufacturer.

Delalic said the gunmen stole overcoats, money, glasses and wristwatches while the three men were spread-eagled against the side of the truck. The abductors insulted them with epithets, declaring their territory off limits to “Turks,” the pejorative term used by Serb extremists for Muslims.

Delalic and his two companions spent the next 10 days in a small jail cell without beds or bedding, where they were fed once every 24 hours.

“I thought the road was safe. I thought the war was over. I thought IFOR was providing guarantees,” Delalic said in an interview at his home atop one of the snow-capped ridges that enfold Sarajevo. Tearful relatives and relieved friends crowded into a room heated with a wood-burning stove. “But when we bumped into that gang . . . they stole everything.”

Added his companion, 44-year-old truck driver Adil Spahic: “I wouldn’t dare to go on this same road again with the security that exists now.”

Bosnian government officials said one person on the original list of 16 missing was not freed, and one person was released whose name had not appeared on the list.

This suggested that the Serbs are still holding at least one person, a government spokesman said. And there are reports that two Serbs loyal to the Bosnian government are also under arrest in Ilidza.

“They [the Serbs] say that is all, but we will have to check the jails,” said Col. Vladimir Rybnikov, head of the U.N.'s civilian police force. “The authorities here play chess with no rules and no referee.”

Three hours before the release, the mayor of Ilidza had declared that he would free no one and that he continues to have the authority to decide who can travel his district’s roads, regardless of what the peace agreement says.

“Freedom of movement means they must stay on the main roads,” said the mayor, Nedjeljko Prstojevic, dressed in his customary camouflage fatigues with a pistol on his hip.

But as international criticism of the detentions grew, so did pressure from the United States and, albeit slowly, NATO.

Carl Bildt, the senior civilian in charge of implementing the peace accord, also weighed in with the Serbian leadership in meetings in Ilidza and the northern stronghold of Banja Luka. He said he told the Serbs that if they want security concessions for their own people in the parts of Serbian Sarajevo that will be returned to the government, they will have to obey security rules.

After dismissing the detentions as minor crime problems that were a police matter, NATO on Thursday said it will step up its patrols through Ilidza.

Still, NATO officials continued to view their role as one of ensuring freedom of movement for IFOR only. And some diplomats here were left wondering whether IFOR will have the resolve to counter the inevitable intransigence from the warring parties.

“It is not a military responsibility to ensure freedom of movement for everyone,” IFOR spokesman Col. Bob Gaylord said in Tuzla, site of U.S. headquarters in Bosnia.

Talk from Washington, where the peace accord was spawned, was much tougher, suggesting a divergence between politicians there and the military here.

Burns, the State Department spokesman, said “the abduction of 16 people is a direct violation of the Dayton accords” and “a direct violation of the commitments made by the Bosnian Serb authorities and by the Belgrade government.”

“There can be no justification for this type of action,” Burns added.

Freedom of movement was suffering another setback in Bosnia on Thursday. The largest relief agency in the region announced that it was halting aid convoys into central Bosnia after Bosnian Croats tried to exact a fee to traverse their territory.

Times staff writers Art Pine in Washington and Richard C. Paddock in Tuzla contributed to this report.