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Thursday, 31 October, 2002, 18:21 GMT
Bosnia mired in arms scandal
Mig fighters in Yugoslavia
There may be a Balkan-wide network of arms traders

A raid by Nato-led peacekeepers in Bosnia two weeks ago uncovered what is beginning to look like a major Balkan network of traders selling weapons and military services to Iraq.

Investigations are now under way in both Bosnia and in neighbouring Yugoslavia, where another company, Yugoimport, was accused of acting as the middleman.


We do not know the extent of this matter, but my guess is that it is going to be very wide-ranging... and it's going to extend into areas which will surprise us

Lord Ashdown
Last week, a ship seized by the Croatian authorities was found to be carrying gunpowder used in military weapons.

It has yet to be established whether the cargo was bound for Iraq - but that was the tip-off the Croatian authorities said they received from one of their allies.

The ship's crew come from the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro.

So far seven officials - two in Yugoslavia, five in Bosnia - have lost their jobs over the affair.

There could be more - and worse - to come.

Yugoimport SDPR, accused of supplying Iraq
A Yugoslav firm is accused of acting as sales agent

The latest casualties were the Bosnian Serb defence minister and his chief of staff.

When the story broke, they were actually on an official trip to Burma. They tendered their resignations on Monday night.

An official statement said the two men had "no direct responsibility" for the violation of a United Nations (UN) arms embargo on Iraq by the Orao (Eagle) Aviation Institute.

The government had been under pressure - particularly from the Americans - to act.

Long inquiry

It will be some time before the results of any investigations are known.

Bosnia's international overseer, Lord Paddy Ashdown, is putting pressure on the Bosnian Serbs to carry out a full enquiry and ensure that whoever was responsible for the arms sales is held to account.

Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic
Milosevic had close ties to the Iraqi regime

The Nato-led stabilisation force S-For is examining the documents it seized during the raid on Orao two weeks ago.

"We do not know the extent of this matter," Lord Ashdown said on Sunday.

"But my guess is that it is going to be very wide-ranging, it's going to be regional. And it's going to extend into areas which will surprise us."

Old ties

The old Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which disintegrated during the 1990s, had one of the strongest armies in Europe.

It exported armaments all over the world. Most of its weapons factories were in Bosnia.


Middle people are still there, they're still operating, and during the Milosevic regime, they were able to line their pockets

Former S-For political analyst Bill Putnam

Yugoslavia's former president, Slobodan Milosevic, cultivated ties with Iraq.

After his overthrow two years ago, the coalition which replaced him has done little to tackle reform of the armed forces.

The regime in Belgrade has changed - if not in Baghdad - but some of the old ties remain, according to Bill Putnam, formerly S-For political analyst.

"What wasn't necessarily removed were some of the middle people, who were behind the scenes," he said.

"They're still there, they're still operating, and during the Milosevic regime, they were able to line their pockets. I think in some ways you still have a lot of that going on, despite the fact that Milosevic is no longer in power and we do have a democratically elected government."

Bosnia's weakness

In Bosnia, part of the problem stems from the post-war system of government.


Inter-ethnic co-operation in the former Yugoslavia has always flourished when there is money at stake - especially from the grey or black market

The two highly autonomous entities, the Bosnian-Serb Republic and the Muslim-Croat Federation, have most of the power, at the expense of the central state.

The armed forces, in particular, are the responsibility of the entities.

But if the UN rules that Bosnia has broken an arms embargo, it is the central state which will be held accountable.

In the long run, these revelations could be used to strengthen the central government's powers, although it will be politically difficult to unify the armed forces under civilian control.

Inter-ethnic co-operation

The Deputy Prime Minister of neighbouring Serbia, Nebojsa Covic, has claimed that other Bosnian weapons firms also had links with Yugoimport.

All of them are in the Muslim-Croat Federation.

This is less surprising than it might seem. Inter-ethnic co-operation in the former Yugoslavia has always flourished when there is money at stake - especially from the grey or black market.

Bill Putnam says there have been well-documented cases in Bosnia when Croats, Muslims and Serbs sold weapons to each other while they were actually at war.

See also:

29 Oct 02 | Europe
27 Oct 02 | Europe
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