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Perils in the Hunt for Serb Prisons

Effort to visit previously unknown Serb-run detention center highlights difficulties investigators face in both locating and inspecting prisons

`YOU can't go. There is fighting," insisted the gun-toting Serbian militiaman manning a barricade in this peaceful, sun-soaked farming village in northeastern Bosnia-Herzegovina.

An attempt by this correspondent and another American reporter to skirt the blockade by taking a dirt road through a cornfield ended in their arrests by the militiaman and his comrades.

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They confiscated the journalists' passports and escorted them to the police station in the nearby town of Bjeljina, a two-hour drive from Belgrade.

"These are not journalists. They are enemies doing their criminal deeds," one of the militiamen told a police officer.

The hulking white-haired man, who sported sunglasses and a World War II-vintage Army uniform, then released the reporters and ordered: "Don't ever come back."

The journalists were investigating reports by a half-dozen local Muslim Slavs and a Serbian resident that up to 2,000 non-Serbs are being held in a previously unknown Serb-run detention center in Klis, a tiny hamlet outside Batkovic, three miles from Bjeljina.

"It's an open secret," said one of those interviewed. All said they were too terrified to allow their names to be used. Military denies charges

Vojvoda Djukic, a senior Serbian military leader, denied the charges, saying his forces were holding only two prisoners of war in Bjeljina, one of the first towns on Bosnia-Herzegovina's Muslim Slav-dominated eastern frontier overrun in the four-month-old Serbian offensive to capture territory for a self-declared rump Yugoslavia.

But on returning to Belgrade, this correspondent learned that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had confirmed from other Serbian officials the existence of the Klis camp. The Serbian officials had not, however, given their permission for an inspection.

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That and the detention of the journalists contravened assurances that Serbian Democratic Party (SDP) leaders have repeatedly given of unhindered access to such facilities to defend themselves against the worldwide outrage ignited by allegations of torture and killings in Serb-run prisons.

Mr. Djukic admitted that he does not always heed the will of SDP President Radovan Karadzic and other party leaders.

Such problems and other hurdles promise to make even more difficult the already marathon investigation the ICRC launched this week into the entire prison camp issue.

Western diplomatic sources said that since worldwide attention focused on the question two weeks ago, Serbian authorities have attempted to rapidly improve conditions at compounds that have been identified by the Western press and ICRC.

But on Wednesday United States Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs John Bolton said the US has firm evidence that Serbian forces have been moving prisoners from other compounds to prevent them from being questioned or physically examined.

Humanitarian agency sources in Belgrade said they believed Muslim Slav and Croatian forces were doing similar things with their Serbian prisoners.

Another major problem facing the ICRC is determining the locations of detention centers. Many of those alleged by the warring factions have been found not to exist. And as in the case of Klis, there are believed to be numerous unknown locations where prisoners - combatants and civilians - are being held.

Klis does not appear on the list of 105 sites that the Muslim Slav-led Bosnian government charges are Serb-run "concentration camps." Local notoriety

A refugee who fled to Belgrade from the area and said that his brothers were being held in Klis first alerted this correspondent about the camp. Another refugee told a Western diplomat that her parents were imprisoned there.

"Oh, you want to know how to get to the camp," a Batkovic resident replied when asked only to point out the road to Klis.

Those interviewed in the Bjeljina area about the detention center said it was set up on a compound owned by a local agricultural wholesale firm, Semberija.

Most of the inmates, they said, were residents of the northeastern towns of Brcko and Brezovo Polje who were first incarcerated in other camps before being moved to Klis.

Several said they had learned of its existence from Semberjia employees. Others said they had relatives imprisoned there.

"My son is being kept there," said a Muslim Slav woman, choking back sobs. "A guard came to tell me. He personally brought a note from my son and told me my boy was there." She said she and a sympathetic Serbian friend tried three weeks ago to bring her son some food, but they were turned back by the Serbian militiamen at the Batkovic checkpoint.

The woman said her son had been staying with relatives in Brezovo Polje and was captured when the town was surrounded at the beginning of the war by Serbian forces, who took away all of the non-Serbs in an "ethnic cleansing" operation.

Those interviewed said they knew little of the conditions in the Klis camp. Several reported hearing from guards that prisoners received insufficient quantities of food and that they were allowed to wash periodically.

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