WASHINGTON — The State Department's top Europe expert on Tuesday accused Serbian military forces of engaging in acts reminiscent of the crimes of Nazi Germany, although he said the Bush Administration has been unable to prove allegations that the Serbs are systematically killing their ethnic foes in special detention camps.
Hours after the statements by Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Niles, the U.N. Security Council demanded that all warring factions in the former Yugoslavia open their detention facilities to inspection by the Red Cross or other neutral observers to test the accusations of large-scale torture and killing.
The council statement, issued at the urging of the United States, is not binding under international law. But U.S. officials said impartial inspections may be the only way to prove or disprove the charges that Serbian authorities have established concentration camps to exterminate Muslim Slavs and Croats.
Canadian Maj. Gen. Lewis MacKenzie, who led U.N. peacekeepers at Sarajevo airport, said at the United Nations that he had received complaints from all factions about concentration camp atrocities, wire services reported from New York. He said the complaints were first received about five months ago but that the pace of the allegations increased about two months ago as the Serbs' "ethnic cleansing" campaign accelerated.
Niles, in testimony to a House subcommittee, said, "It is an . . . almost poignant tragedy that the Serbian people, who suffered so terribly at the hands of the Nazi occupiers of Yugoslavia during the Second (World) War, are engaging in practices which are in some respects reminiscent of some of the things that happened during the (Nazi) occupation," he said.
Fending off congressional demands for firmer U.S. action to stop atrocities in the former republics of Yugoslavia, Niles said the Administration is pressing the Security Council to authorize the use of military force to deliver food and medicine to besieged cities in Bosnia-Herzegovina. He said the United States would contribute Navy and Air Force units to such a U.N. force.
The controversy over President Bush's Yugoslavia policy emerged again as an issue in the election campaign when Democratic challenger Bill Clinton demanded Tuesday that the United States and the world community "discover who is responsible for these actions and take steps to bring them to justice."
In a statement issued by his Little Rock, Ark., headquarters, Clinton said: "I am outraged by the revelations of concentration camps in Bosnia and urge immediate action to stop this slaughter. . . . The United States and the international community must take action. If the horrors of the Holocaust taught us anything, it is the high cost of remaining silent and paralyzed in the face of genocide."
Niles insisted that economic and political sanctions already imposed on the Serb-led remnants of the Yugoslav federation may yet prove to be enough to force Serbia to end its aggression. He heatedly denied charges that the Administration's policy was dictated by the approaching November election.
Responding to questions from angry members of the House European subcommittee, Niles said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher was misunderstood Monday when he said U.S. authorities "know from our own reports" that Muslim Slavs and Croats have been tortured and killed in Serbian-run "detention centers."
Niles said Tuesday that the government has obtained information suggesting the operation of death camps, but he said these reports cannot be confirmed with certainty because independent observers have not been allowed to visit the facilities. Inspectors from the Geneva-based International Committee of the Red Cross have entered some internment camps on both sides of the conflict but have been denied access to many others.
"I did not deny the existence of atrocities, totally unacceptable acts, by the Serbian authorities," Niles said. "(But) we do not have confirming information that the reports of systematic . . . deaths in these detention facilities are true."
He said the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade, the Serbian and Yugoslav capital, reported that the Bosnian government "released a list of 105 concentration camps and prisons; 94 in Bosnia-Herzegovina, plus 11 in Serbia-Montenegro, where Serbian Defense Forces have allegedly been holding non-Serb civilians. Now, the allegation has been made . . . that in some of these facilities a large number of prisoners have in fact been killed."
Niles said the U.S. government is disgusted by the Serbian policy of "ethnic cleansing," a systematic campaign to drive Muslims and Croats out of vast areas of Croatia and Bosnia.
"I share entirely, and all of us do, your sense of outrage (and) disgust at the policies adopted by the Serbian authorities as they relate to Bosnia-Herzegovina," Niles told the lawmakers.