First Moslem refugees return to hard-line Serb area

April 5, 2000

SARAJEVO, Apr 5, 2000 -- (Reuters) Moslems have returned to a hard-line nationalist Serb region in Bosnia for the first time since the end of the country's 1992-95 ethnic war, the UN refugee agency said on Tuesday.

A group of 400 refugees visited their pre-war homes in villages around Foca last weekend, and 50 of them decided to stay on in a tent settlement, said Wendy Rappeport, spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The villages were completely destroyed by Bosnian Serb forces during the conflict, and the houses have not yet been rebuilt.

Rappeport said troops of the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Bosnia had removed improvised barricades set up by unidentified people to prevent the refugees from visiting the homes they fled or were expelled from eight years ago. She said the return to Foca was one of the first major movements of refugees' back to the eastern part of Bosnia's Serb republic, still politically controlled by Serb hard-liners.

Post-war Bosnia also consists of a Moslem-Croat federation.

Four years after the war ended, some 1.2 million Bosnians are either internally displaced or live as refugees abroad, unable or unwilling to go back home. Many of them were victims of brutal "ethnic cleansing", much of it conducted by Bosnian Serb separatist forces. Western officials say many Moslem refugees are reluctant to return because of security concerns, especially since several indicted war crimes suspects remain at large, including wartime Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic. Some media reports have suggested that he is hiding near Foca, which is situated around 55 km (35 miles) southeast of the capital Sarajevo.

The European Union last week pledged 60 million euros ($57 million) to help refugees return to Bosnia and neighboring Croatia.

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