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Bosnian Government Begins Deporting Foreign Muslim Fighters

The Bosnian government has begun expelling hundreds of foreign fighters who fought alongside the Bosnian Muslim Army against Serbs and Croats from 1992 to 1995 and who were granted Bosnian citizenship at the end of the war. Most of the foreign fighters came from Muslim countries, and many were veterans of the war in Afghanistan where they had fought against the Soviet occupation. After the war some married Bosnian women and stayed on to raise their families. But among them were men who were subsequently linked to terrorist activities in Europe.

Bosnian journalist Kemal Kurspahic was wartime editor of Oslobodjenja – or Liberation – the only daily newspaper in Bosnia published throughout the war years. He says the West and neighboring Croatia turned a “blind eye” to the arrival of foreign fighters partly because Bosnia was under an international arms embargo and the Bosnian Muslim population was faced with extermination in some areas. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Mr. Kurspahic says that some of the foreign fighters came to Bosnia out of a sense “Islamic solidarity” to fight for a cause. But others were responsible for some of the “most gruesome war crimes” committed by Bosnian Army units. For that reason, he says, it was a “mistake” for the Bosnian government to offer its foreign fighters “group admission” without proper legal procedures. Among these foreign fighters, Kemal Kurspahic says, was a radical group that preached “extreme forms” of Islam, which were alien to Bosnia’s tradition of tolerance and multiculturalism.

So far, the government has reviewed more than a thousand cases where citizenship was granted to foreigners. And of those, more than 400 have been revoked, Mr. Kurspahic says. He says both the Bosnian government and international community have a “legitimate concern” that some of the foreign fighters might pose a threat to national security.

For example, the editor of Politika in Belgrade says there was a “direct link” between the July 7th bombings of the London transport system two years ago and Bosnia’s foreign fighters. According to Ljiljana Smajlovic, one of the leaders of that attack – Abu Hamza – had fought in Bosnia. Furthermore, journalists and regional analysts have for years been debating the exact nature of the views of Bosnia’s first president, Alija Izetbegovic, on Islam and politics and on the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Ms. Smajlovic says Mr. Izetbegovic wrote books, such as his Islamic Declaration, which “could be construed as clear arguments in favor of Islamic law.”

On the other hand, Matthias Rueb, Washington correspondent for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, says he thinks cultural tolerance is still part of the fabric of present-day Bosnia. Nonetheless, there might be “some truth to the accusation” that there was a Bosnian connection to both al-Qaida and Iran. The real question, Mr. Rueb says, is whether a majority of the foreign fighters is “prone to extremism.” He suggests that post-war Bosnian society may have changed but not to the extent that it is now a “breeding ground for extremist Islamists.”

To listen to all of the comments, click on the audio link above.