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RESPONSE TO TERROR

U.S. Spirits 6 Terror Suspects Out of Bosnia

Balkans: A Sarajevo court had ordered the release of the men, who are headed for Guantanamo Bay. Some decry the move; others defend it as a 'wartime necessity.'

January 19, 2002|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BERLIN — U.S. forces flew six terrorist suspects out of Bosnia on Friday after that country's Supreme Court ruled that it had too little evidence to charge them, the first known instance of the United States casting its anti-terror net beyond the homeland and Afghan war zone.

The latest U.S. move to detain and prosecute terrorism suspects was met with fierce protests by Muslims in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina's capital, where 300 family members and supporters tried to block the U.S. military transport vehicles carrying the six men to an unknown destination.

"Arrangements were made to detain the six when Bosnian authorities were no longer able to hold them according to their own laws," Navy Capt. Brian Cullin confirmed from Stuttgart, Germany, the command center for U.S. forces deployed in Bosnia. "U.S. forces have taken them into detention. We are not disclosing where that location is, and we are going to be moving them out very quickly."

The hand-over came amid increasing criticism from human rights organizations in Europe, which accuse U.S. authorities of trampling civil liberties in the pursuit of terrorists since the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States.

A senior military source who spoke on condition that he not be identified said the men--five Algerians and a Yemeni--would be transferred by the end of the weekend to the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Already, 110 suspected Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters from the Afghan campaign are being held there.

"Bosnia-Herzegovina is still a developing democracy, to put it mildly, and their rule of law is not quite mature enough to handle this issue," the officer said, explaining that Sarajevo had not been provided with all the evidence gathered by U.S. intelligence against the suspects. "There was a judgment by U.S. authorities that we would hold back a certain amount of our intelligence from Bosnian authorities."

The State Department commended the Bosnian government for handing over the suspects. Spokeswoman Lynn L. Cassel called it "a significant contribution to the war on terrorism."

The six men, who had been held in Sarajevo since October, were arrested by Bosnian police on U.S. reports that a credible threat existed to coalition forces in the Balkan country. The U.S. and British embassies in the capital were closed for several days because of the alleged threat, about which no details were given.

A U.S. military statement said Sarajevo and Washington remain convinced that the six men "still pose a significant threat."

The U.S. military has about 9,100 troops in the region, part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization peacekeeping force in Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia.

On Thursday, Bosnia's Supreme Court ordered the men released, citing a lack of incriminating evidence. The Helsinki Committee for Human Rights also had criticized the men's detention without charges, and monitors for the group in Sarajevo had warned against U.S. forces taking the men out of the country.

The U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo said in a statement Friday that the suspects "will be treated humanely and in accordance with international law," but it gave no further details of their whereabouts or circumstances.

Most of the men worked for Islamic humanitarian groups in Bosnia and had been in the former Yugoslav republic since the 1992-95 siege by Serbian and Croatian nationalists against Bosnian Muslims.

All had obtained Bosnian citizenship through marriage or in recognition of their roles in defending the republic against nationalist aggression. About 200 Islamic warriors, or moujahedeen, remain in Bosnia, many of them suspected of having links to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network and other terrorist groups.

Based on U.S. intelligence reports, Bosnian police and NATO-led peacekeepers arrested more than 20 suspects in Bosnia after Sept. 11. The other detainees have since been released or deported.

Two international law experts were sharply divided on the wisdom of the U.S. action Friday.

"This is nothing short of a kidnapping," said M. Cherif Bassiouni, a professor at DePaul University Law School in Chicago, who was chairman of the U.N. Security Council commission that investigated war crimes in the former Yugoslav federation.

"This is a return to the Wild West and is surely likely to affect the credibility of the U.S. as a country that adheres to the rule of law. Worse yet, it will give great support to the claims of terrorists that the U.S. lacks legitimacy in what it does," Bassiouni said.

But Ruth Wedgwood, a Yale law professor, said the U.S. had acted appropriately, out of "sheer wartime necessity."

She said she believed that five of the six had been stripped of their Bosnian citizenship after their arrests, which would be legally significant, and that there had been "no violation of Bosnian sovereignty," because Bosnian authorities did not resist Friday's action.

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