SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Thousands of Muslims and Croats will be evacuated from the northwestern Bosnian town of Prijedor to save them from nationalist Serbs bent on wiping them out, the International Committee of the Red Cross announced yesterday.
The decision runs contrary to a long-standing policy of both the ++ Red Cross and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to avoid mass evacuations of minority groups since that would be helping the Serbs drive out other ethnic groups and populate the area with their own.
"We are not in the business of assisting ethnic cleansing, but the question is one of life and death for these people," said Vanya Kewley, the spokeswoman in Sarajevo for the International Committee of the Red Cross.
At least 19 Muslim and Croatian civilians have been killed since Wednesday in the Serbian-held town of Prijedor in the Banja Luka region in the latest wave of a coordinated two-year Serbian campaign of violence and intimidation.
Aid workers expressed fear that the decision may encourage nationalist Serbs to mount new attacks on Muslims and Croats.
The aid workers also said they fear that a flood of desperate Muslims and Croats may pour into Prijedor from nearby towns where Serbian gunmen have for months used killings, rape and arson to pry them from their homes.
"I am sure the Serbs are not going to cry about it," said one aid worker, who asked to remain unidentified. "The danger now is that this is a precedent. It may encourage the Serbs and encourage people to seek evacuation even if they are not under great duress."
"We want to avoid a stampede. . . . We're worried that we could get a situation of crowds besieging us and getting out of control."
The planned evacuation from Prijedor would be one of the largest mass movements of people in the entire Bosnian war, which has uprooted some 2 million people and killed an estimated 200,000.
U.N. officials estimate that there are 3,000 Croats and 6,000 Muslims left in Prijedor and nearby villages. There are about 55,000 Serbs now living in Prijedor, which had a Muslim majority before the war.
The Red Cross plans to bus those who wish to leave Prijedor north across a bridge over the Sava River at Novska, where they will be handed over to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees for placement in camps in Croatia and eventual transfer to other countries, officials said.
Red Cross officials confirmed that the organization's aid workers were gathering buses in the Croatian capital, Zagreb, for the evacuation.
During a similar, but much smaller evacuation a year ago from the besieged Muslim enclave of Srebrenica, which had been under relentless Serbian attacks for weeks, Muslims desperate to flee crushed each other to death in the rush to jam themselves into U.N. trucks.
Robin Thompson, a spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, said that representatives from the organization were scheduled to meet with nationalist Serbian officials in Bosnia tomorrow to discuss safe passage for the refugees. "We won't move unless we have the appropriate guarantees for the safety of these people and our own people," she said.
Speaking from Geneva, Thierry Germond, the Red Cross' delegate general for Europe, said that, despite numerous promises, high-ranking and local Bosnian Serbs had not acted to quell months of brutal violence against minority group members in northwestern Bosnia.
Bosnian Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic backed the evacuation plans. "If these people are in danger, we have to take them out," Mr. Silajdzic said. "Lives come first."
Meanwhile, in the eastern Bosnian enclave of Gorazde, which the Security Council declared a "safe area" last spring, nationalist Serbs continued their attacks today. No U.N. peacekeepers have ever been deployed there.
Sarajevo radio reported today night that 41 people have been killed and 172 wounded since Tuesday.
U.N. military observers in Gorazde have reported that the Serbs are attempting to take over the entire pocket, a move that would uproot about 65,000 people, most of them refugees already displaced once by the Serbian "ethnic cleansing" campaign. Privately, Bosnian army leaders say they are afraid the pocket will fall because its defenders lack ammunition.