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UNHCR alarmed by Croatia arrests of Serbs

BELGRADE, Aug 23, 2000 -- (Reuters) The UN refugee agency expressed alarm on Tuesday over recent arrests in Croatia of returning Serb refugees.

Spokeswoman Maki Shinohara for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Belgrade, which this year launched a campaign to encourage Croatian Serbs to go back to their homes, said three people had been arrested since July.

Two of them were detained upon return to their villages while one was held during a visit to his former home.

She said the two returnees were arrested even though their applications to return had been cleared by Croatian authorities, meaning that they were supposedly safe to go back.

By clearing the applications, the authorities had given their assurances that there were no outstanding criminal actions against them. Shinohara stressed that those who committed crimes must be brought to justice, but added:

"Arrests made after this clearance process is a contradiction and we fear that this would undermine and threaten the credibility of the return procedure that we have now."

Shinohara said the agency had been told that the detained Serbs had previous criminal records but she declined to go into details.

The UNHCR's Zagreb office had asked the Croatian government to find out exactly why they had been arrested after being cleared and to take steps to make sure it did not happen again.

UNHCR CAMPAIGN

The arrests took place at a time when returns of Croatian Serbs are on the rise following last January's crushing election defeat of nationalists in Croatian elections, and Shinohara said she hoped they would not hinder the process.

"That's why we are addressing this issue because to us this is something that's very alarming," she told a news conference, adding that the arrests represented an exception and that most Serbs were able to go home safely.

The UNHCR said in June that it was conducting a media campaign with authorities in Yugoslavia, which has Europe's biggest refugee population of some 700,000, to persuade Serbs that the time was right to return to Croatia.

To facilitate that process, the Croatian authorities earlier agreed to clear applications within 30 days and also dropped a key condition on accommodation for those coming back.

Shinohara said there had been around 1,300 organized returns to Croatia by July, equal the figure for all of 1999. Many others had returned spontaneously.

"With improved conditions in Croatia we have been increasing our convoys," she said. "This summer we are really focusing on repatriation much more so than in previous years."

An estimated 270,000 Serbs were displaced from Croatia during the bloody collapse of old socialist Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Many fled during Croatian offensives in 1995 to recapture Serb-held land in the country.



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