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Smith Says Bosnia Prisoner Issue Still Sore Spot

By Master Sgt. Stephen Barrett, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 12, 1996 – The NATO Implementation Force commander in Bosnia-Herzegovina continues to push for unconditional release of all prisoners factions hold.

However, Navy Adm. Leighton Smith said he would rather see prisoner releases handled as a political solution -- not as a military operation. "I don't think that military force to enforce a prisoner release is probably something that I would jump in the middle of right now," he said.

During a Pentagon briefing, Smith said the prisoner issue is a real sore spot in the Implementation Force's peacekeeping mission. "We continue to hear stories that the Serbs would release theirs if the Croats released theirs and if the Muslims would release theirs," said Smith. "You go back and read the Annex 1 [of the Dayton agreement]. There are no conditions to release. It's not an exchange. It is the release of prisoners, and we continue to push that point home."

Smith said five months into the agreement, the factions are still holding prisoners -- using them as political bargaining chips. "I think that it's terrible that the people of that country continue to barter with people," said Smith. "The folks have been in prison long enough. They are being treated like large pieces of meat, and it's time that they are released without condition."

Still, he said he feels a military enforcement of prisoner release is not the correct method. "I believe that the pressures from the political side and the economic side are the proper way to deal with the prisoner issue." Smith said Carl Bildt -- his NATO civilian counterpart -- is threatening to postpone the future meetings until the Croats, Serbs and Moslems release their prisoners.

Smith said under the agreement, the military provides the International Red Cross with logistical support. Smith said the military is using its joint military commission as a forum for exchanging prisoner data. The military will also provide area security during prisoner releases.

However, he said help has to come from the political leaders to release those held -- something he said he emphasized each time he's talked to federation presidents and prime ministers. "Personally, I've seen these people on the prisoner release issue, and I know a lot of other people have as well," said Smith. "I'm just telling you that I'm just one of many. We haven't broken through yet."

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