Two senior Western officials said on Thursday that they had evidence that thousands of Muslim men and boys may have been killed during the past week or so by Bosnian Serbs in a contested area of northwest Bosnia. They said such killings, in the area around Banja Luka, might be continuing even now.
The reported killings of men and boys who were detained by Serbian paramilitary forces, as they expelled women, children and the elderly into Muslim-held territory, may involve "several thousand" people, according to senior Western officials.The officials said they had evidence of killings that went beyond the previously reported accounts, by expelled family members, of atrocities and of men being led to uncertain fates.
The possible killings in the Banja Luka area, where fighting has raged in recent weeks, were reportedly conducted by paramilitary groups that have close ties to Serbian leaders in Belgrade. If confirmed, the mass killings would resemble the apparent slaughter of thousands of draft-age men who were rounded up by the Serbs in July from the former Muslim enclave of Srebrenica.
The reports of killings come as American officials, including Assistant Secretary of State Richard C. Holbrooke, have sought to rehabilitate the image of the Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic, as they pursue a regional peace involving Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs, whom Milosevic has represented in negotiations.
But senior U.N. officials said American silence, at this point, would be tantamount to complicity in any mass killing that may be taking place.
"If the killings are going on," said a senior U.N. official, who asked to remain unidentified, "and the Americans are simply observing it, they will be as morally culpable as those officials in World War II who saw the photographs of the lines of Jews outside the gas chambers and did nothing."
A senior Western diplomat said: "Given the totality of evidence and circumstances, we are very concerned that a Srebrenica-style system of killing of military-age men has or is going on. We are talking about, at least, several thousand men."
The impending peace talks, to begin this month in the United States, may be pushing the Bosnian Serbs to hasten the pace of the killings, two senior Western diplomats involved in the investigation said.
"They are liquidating men who were being used as slave laborers," one of the diplomats said. "If peace comes, then the Serbs apparently do not want to let these men go and add to the numbers of enemy soldiers."
U.N. officials said that if such killings were continuing, then strong Western objections to the Serbian leadership might still save lives.