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Tuesday, 2 October, 2001, 11:38 GMT 12:38 UK
Analysis: Bin Laden and the Balkans
Osama Bin Laden
Bin Laden runs camps in Bosnia, claims Serbian minister
By south-east Europe analyst
Gabriel Partos

The arrest of four terrorist suspects in Bosnia has focused new attention on claims that Islamic militants may be operating from there.

Bosnian Army
Hundreds of foreign fighters fought with the Bosnian Army
A Serbian Government minister has suggested that Osama Bin Laden runs training camps in Bosnia.

Local media reports have even claimed that Bin Laden holds a Bosnian passport - a suggestion which has been denied by the Bosnian prime minister.

The presence of foreign militant Muslim fundamentalists in the Balkans dates back to the Bosnian war in the 1990s.


Hundreds of foreign Muslim volunteers - the mujahideen - fought alongside their Bosnian Muslim co-religionists in the conflict with Bosnia's Serb and Croat nationalists.

Under the Dayton peace accords of 1995, the mujahideen - along with all foreign fighters and military instructors - were required to leave the country.

But the Sarajevo government granted Bosnian passports to Muslim fighters who either married locally or had no safe country to go to.

The Muslims of the Balkans are steeped in traditions of religious tolerance

It is not clear how many were allowed to stay in this way - estimates vary between 70 and 420.

The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have sparked a number of renewed claims about the activities of international Muslim militant groups in Bosnia and elsewhere in the mainly-Muslim inhabited regions of the Balkans.

The claim about Bin Laden training camps was made by Serbia's Minister of the Interior, Dusan Mihailovic. He said there were camps in both Bosnia and Kosovo - and a presence in Albania.

These allegations seem rather far-fetched - both for reasons of practical politics and historical legacy.

For one thing, the Muslims of the Balkans are steeped in traditions of religious tolerance. This was based, in part, on their long-term co-existence with their Catholic and Orthodox Christian neighbours.

Athiest system

Besides, they could not avoid secularisation across Europe over the past couple of centuries - a process that had been accelerated under the atheist system imposed during communist rule.

Bosnia's Muslim-led but multi-ethnic central government always insisted that the war was not a religious conflict; and if it accepted help from Islamic volunteers that was because it was militarily the weakest side.

Nato peacekeeper in Bosnia
Nato's presence has limited militant activities
Since the end of the fighting, the same pragmatic approach has prevailed.

Reconstruction aid from Muslim countries and organisations has been welcomed without jeopardising Bosnia's multi-ethnic character where Muslims - who prefer to be known as Bosniaks - are the largest community but do not form an overall majority.

A similar pragamatic approach to aid from foreign Islamic sources has characterised Albania.

In their approach to the future, most Muslims in Bosnia and Albania look to Europe, the United States and the West, in general.

This is even more the case in Kosovo where the local, predominantly Muslim, ethnic Albanians see the US-led Nato alliance as their liberators from Serbian rule.

Balkans security has been no more lax than that of the US or its major Western allies

In recent years Albania - helped by the CIA - has extradited a number of foreign Muslim militants to Egypt and other countries.

In Bosnia, activities by foreign Islamic fundamentalists are largely held in check by the presence of the Nato-led S-For peacekeepers who have carried out some of the latest arrests.

That does not mean that there may not be some Islamic militants in the Balkans.

But these countries' security has been no more lax than that of the US or its major Western allies - which failed to detect the sizeable number of hijackers who lived or passed through their states before last month's attacks in New York and Washington.

See also:

24 Jul 00 | Europe
Bosnia evicts 'holy war' settlers
18 Jul 00 | Europe
Mujahideen fight Bosnia evictions
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