Croat POWs at issue / Groups allege bribes, swaps

USA Today
August 3, 1992, Monday, First Edition
BYLINE: Tom Squitieri
SECTION: NEWS; Pg. 4A
LENGTH: 399 words
DATELINE: BELGRADE

Serbian forces are violating international accords for the treatment of POWs, human rights groups here say.

The charge: Serbians are accepting bribes to release Croatian prisoners of war and Croatians are kidnapping Serbian civilians to swap for their POWs still held after the bloody six-month war with Croatia ended in January.

The rights groups say the reported bribes and swaps violate Geneva Convention accords, which require that POWs be cared for until the end of hostilities or until formal exchanges are arranged.

Such illegal POW releases and exchanges have been covered up by the Serbian military forces, the groups allege, but are being investigated by private human rights organizations in Yugoslavia and abroad.

Pierre-Andre Conode of the International Committee of the Red Cross says the ICRC has ”reproved and made very stern warnings” about the illegal exchanges, especially those involving captured civilian women and children.

”It’s absolutely true and not just in Croatia, but also in Bosnia,” Conode says. ”It seems there is a pattern to capturing civilians … for exchange.”

Last October the ICRC established procedures for formal prisoner exchanges between Croatia and Serbia fighters. Since then, about 3,500 prisoners have been formally exchanged with another 1,000 still in POW camps. Those numbers do not include any POWs held from war in Bosnia.

The reported illegal releases being probed occurred mostly in eastern Croatia, an area under Serbian control.

”We’re speaking of corruption and now we have the evidence,” says Voyin Dabic, a historian who heads the Serbian Council Information Center, a non- governmental group that investigates human rights violations.

”It would have the Croatians go out and capture (Serbian) civilians then bring them to the police station to exchange for their soldiers,” Dabic says.

Dabic says his group is close to identifying officers who took bribes in illegal exchanges.

Earlier this year the same organization detailed murders of civilians in the war zones that brought warnings to Serbia and Croatia from Helsinki Watch, an international human rights monitoring group.

Copies of military documents obtained by Dabic’s group say at least 331 Croatian soldiers in POW camps on Dec. 19 were covertly released. At least 100 of those reportedly then went south to fight against Serbians in Bosnia.