Blanket air and ground surveillance has found no sign of clandestine weapons shipments to the country’s Muslim forces, international officials monitoring Bosnia’s peace said Friday.
The Muslim-led army is benefiting from a U.S.-led $400 million rearmament program and NATO sources say it has used funds from friendly countries to buy high-technology equipment, including anti-tank and anti-aircraft missile systems. The purchases are permitted as long as they ultimately are used by a joint Muslim-Croat force that the international community envisions for Bosnia.
“The United States does not believe that the Sarajevo government is engaged in a covert rearming effort outside of the U.S.-led international train-and-equip program,” said James Rubin, the U.S. State Department spokesman.
“Frankly, it would be stupid in the extreme for the Bosnian government to slay the goose that’s laying the golden egg,” Rubin said in Washington.
Rubin’s comments came in response to an article Friday in The New York Times that said Muslims were secretly adding more arms and training that could be used to attack and defeat the Serbs.
The article, which also was in Friday’s Spokesman-Review, cited an Egyptian ship loaded with Soviet-made T-55 tanks at anchor in the Croatian port of Ploce, and said the shipment was part of the Muslim-led forces’ clandestine rearmament program.
Alija Izetbegovic, the Muslim member of Bosnia’s three-member presidency, said in a statement that the shipment had been registered with officials of the foreign peace force.
A source close to the Egyptian government, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the shipment had been held up by an error on the manifest, which said the tanks were intended for the “Bosnian army” instead of the army of the federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The ship has been sitting in the harbor for nearly two months awaiting permission to unload, local media have reported.
Rubin said NATO had been informed of the shipment, but that the United States had asked that approval be delayed until “some procedural problems” could be resolved. He did not elaborate.
“NATO was informed about the delivery long before its arrival in Croatian waters,” Rubin said. “We expect these problems to resolved shortly and the ship will be allowed to enter the port and unload the tanks.”
The New York Times report came amid local media speculation about the possibility of renewed fighting once the NATO-led peace force in Bosnia withdraws.
But officials from the NATO operation, who are responsible for enforcing the Dayton accord, and from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitors arms control efforts, said they had no evidence of illegal arms shipments.
The international groups use air and ground surveillance to monitor weapons and ammunition across Bosnia, and they allow each of the three ethnic factions to investigate the others’ arsenals.
Izetbegovic called the article “speculation and a product of the journalist’s imagination.”
“No secrets are possible in Bosnia today, especially secret armament,” he said. “We have no secret ties and we don’t intend to attack anybody.”
Some analysts say a political split in the Serb half of Bosnia and the prevention of hundreds of thousands of refugees from returning to their prewar homes are laying the ground-work for renewed fighting among Bosnia’s Serbs, Muslims and Croats.
The year-old U.S. program to train and equip Muslims and Croats is intended to help stave off that possibility by knitting together their forces into a joint army that can deter the Serbs. But like many institutions in the U.S.-brokered Muslim-Croat federation, the army is a long way from working as an integrated institution.
The Bosnian Croat army is an extension of the military forces of neighboring Croatia, thus enjoying generous funding, while the Muslims apparently have been hedging their bets with purchases allowed under the arms control program.