Bosnia turns terror suspects over to U.S.

By P. MITCHELL PROTHERO   |   Jan. 18, 2002 at 3:33 PM
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SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Jan. 18 (UPI) -- Bosnian authorities turned six Algerian terror suspects over to U.S. authorities early Friday after a tense all-night standoff with protesters in front of a Bosnian jail.

A Sarajevo court initially had ordered the men released because their period of detention without being charged had expired. Supporters of the men clashed with police to prevent the transfer, but around 5 a.m. police used batons to clear the way for police vehicles transporting the hooded and shackled men.

U.S. officials confirmed the six, who were arrested in October by Bosnia police, had been handed over, but would not reveal their present whereabouts. A spokesman for SFOR, the NATO peacekeeping force in Bosnia, denied the men were in SFOR custody, but refused to comment further.

Human rights officials in Sarajevo immediately condemned what they described as illegal and unethical pressure by Americans in Sarajevo on local authorities to turn the men over, despite several local court rulings that should have prevented the transfer.

Madeleine Rees, the Bosnian representative of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said the move was illegal and represented a setback for the nation-building effort in Bosnia.

"The men were taken by the U.S. in flagrant violation of local laws," she told United Press International. "This move calls into question the process of trying to build the rule of law here by the international community, if the U.S. can just decide to ignore local laws and seize men despite local court rulings."

"We have been fighting to establish the rule of law here in Bosnia for six years, and then they go and do this," she added.

But the U.N. spokesman for the mission in Bosnia said the transfer had been legal and was not opposed by the U.N.

"Our mandate involves helping police Bosnia, but the Interior Ministry and the government made this decision," Stepho Lehmann said. "The local police professionally carried out the the decision within the guidelines and accordance with local laws."

When told of the official position of the U.N. on the move, Rees replied with a epitaph.

"Oh, bollocks," she said. "The Ministry is in violation of Bosnian law in ordering this transfer."

One international worker described the obvious schism between the different U.N. policies as hardly surprising.

"The U.N. is a family, but they are a dysfunctional, bickering family sometimes," he said.

The men had been detained by Bosnian authorities in October after U.S. and NATO officials claimed they were involved in a plot to attack the U.S., British and Dutch embassies in Sarajevo, as well as several NATO military facilities throughout Bosnia. The attacks were not carried out.

At the time of the arrests, U.S. officials made statements alleging that wiretaps revealed one of the men had ties to Osama bin Laden's terror network al Qaida.

Allegations also have been made by U.S. and NATO officials the men have ties to the Armed Islamic Group, or GIA, an Algerian terror group linked to widespread violence in Algeria and France.

But no evidence was presented by the U.S. to the Bosnian Supreme Court of any involvement in the planned attacks, leaving the court no choice but to order their release.

At 4 p.m. local time Thursday, however, when the men were supposed to be released under the court order, they continued to be detained as the Bosnian Interior Ministry moved to strip them of their Bosnian passports, citing them as illegally obtained.

After lawyers for the men filed appeals, another legal process to determine the validity of the loss of citizenship was begun, but before the court could rule or even hear evidence, Bosnian Federal Police moved to turn the men, who are married to local women, over to American officials.

Outside the jail where the men were held, families, supporters and devout Muslims gathered to demand their release. The standoff became increasingly tense throughout the night, as Muslim women in head scarves and dress knelt in the streets surrounding the jail, blocking access to the roads from the building.

Leaders of the Muslim community argued with police, citing the court findings. The crowd continued to grow all night despite brutal cold and a wind-whipped snowfall.

The standoff turned briefly violent as Bosnian police in full riot gear attempted to move the men, with five in one police vehicle and one in a private car, out of a back entrance to avoid the protesters.

But the move was quickly discovered and the lead car with the single prisoner, who could be seen in the back shackled and hooded, was quickly surrounded by a crowd, which had grown to total about 200 active participants.

Despite repeated attempts by police using batons and plastic shields to regain control of the vehicle, a standoff ensued for hours with the van holding the majority of prisoners stuck at the exit of the prison, and the crowd essentially in control of the lead vehicle.

As the crowd had used the snow slick street to push parked vehicles to block the streets, it was clear while the police could prevent the prisoner's from escaping the vehicles, they would not be moving unless the crowd was dispersed.

At one point, someone in the crowd smashed the side window of the lead vehicle, allowing the prisoner's wife to speak with him for the third time since his arrest.

The woman, who gave her name as Nadjia Hagg, told United Press International her husband was not a terrorist, but a humanitarian worker aiding orphans in Bosnia and Kosovo. She also claimed to have given birth a month before and her husband had not been allowed to see their child.

After the initial scuffles, Bosnian police, who generally showed restraint in a very difficult situation, were clearly reluctant to use any more force than necessary on their countrymen.

"What can I do," one police officer told a protest leader in Bosnian in one of several discussions. "This is my job. The Americans are demanding them. What can I do?"

At about 5 a.m., after nearly eight hours of frozen protests and occasional skirmishes, police finally began to use batons to disperse the crowd, which easily was driven from the scene. U.N. officials in civilian clothes driving marked U.N. vehicles observed the protests and clashes, but did not intervene and refused to talk to reporters.

U.S. officials would not comment on where the men were taken or on their final destination.

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