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Bosnian Smuggling Ring Smashed

The UN exposes major people-smuggling ring implicating a leading Bosnian airline.
By Antonio Prlenda

The national Bosnian airline is facing UN allegations of aiding the trafficking of illegal immigrants.


The UN Mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina, UNMBiH, which assists and supervises the work of local police and the State Border Service, SBS, last month accused Air Bosna of introducing landings at the northern Bosnian town to help passengers from Istanbul - predominantly Turkish Kurds - evade SBS scrutiny at Sarajevo airport.


The accusations coincided with the publication of financial police reports which warned that Air Bosna has a higher than usual rate of refunds for the unused return tickets that Turks are obliged to buy before entering BiH territory.


Air Bosna officials strongly deny the allegations and claimed there was a "Western conspiracy" against them.


"We have done nothing illegal," said the director of Air Bosnia, Omer Kulic. "When we introduced landings in Tuzla, we were simply responding to market demands. If the problem is that some passengers don't return, the same must be happening with Turkish Airlines? Their planes fly three times a week, as well as ours."


The Federal Civil Aviation Department, FED CAD, meanwhile, has suspended permission for Air Bosna to land flights from Istanbul to Sarajevo at Tuzla airport.


FED CAD director Amadeo Mandic said that the suspension of the service was aimed at reinforcing the bilateral agreement between BiH and Turkey on the flights of their civil aviation companies.


"We corrected the mistake we made when we allowed Air Bosna flights to land in Tuzla, since the bilateral agreement didn't mention the use of any other airports in BiH besides Sarajevo," said Mandic.


Air Bosna was established after the war with the express encouragement of the Muslim nationalist Party of Democratic Action, SDA. It employs some 100 staff and uses several old Ukrainian Yakovlev Yak-42D airplanes. They mainly fly on routes connecting Sarajevo with Turkey, Germany, Sweden and some other countries.


In an interview with IWPR, UNMBiH spokesman Stefo Lehmann said, "The suspension actually took place only after the head of the UN mission in Bosnia, Jacques Paul Klein, asked the BiH ministry of transport why the landings in Tuzla had not been suspended since they were being used to abet illegal immigration." Some local and Western experts believe that the authorities only acted under pressure from the international community.


Lehmann said that, following the suspension of landings, the number of


monthly passengers from Turkey to Bosnia fell from 1,500, in early 2001, to only 398 in August. The figures make a strong case that the suspension effectively severed one of the channels used by illegal immigrants on their way from Eastern Europe and Asia to the West.


According to the SBS, 14,083 Turkish citizens entered BiH through Sarajevo airport last year, but only 4,117 of them left.


Since Turkey is one of the few countries without a visa agreement with BiH, experts believe that illegal immigrants have been using Sarajevo airport as a way station for Western countries. A similar situation arose with Iranians until BiH introduced a visa regime.


The trafficking of illegal immigrants has become a serious problem in BiH over the past two years. Western governments complain that a high percentage of immigrants have exploited Bosnia's porous, post-war borders and weak coordination to sneak into Europe.


Between July 2000 and April 2001, Croatian police turned back 6,770 illegal immigrants from the northwestern BiH border crossing at Izacic. The number included 3,583 Iranians, 1,764 Turks, 84 Indians, 83 Tunisians and 46 Bangladeshis.


Since early 2000, UNMBiH has assisted in the training of the SBS in a bid to smash the trafficking racket, which has ties to organised crime. The SBS now controls about 70 percent of BiH's borders.


The first crossing to come under SBS control was Sarajevo airport, though it is still not represented at the airports at Tuzla, Mostar and Banja Luka.


Because of this, Air Bosna's decision to introduce a Tuzla stop to its


regular Istanbul - Sarajevo service triggered suspicion. Tuzla is situated only 120 kilometers north of Sarajevo.


The accusations against Air Bosna became more serious when the financial police discovered that Air Bosna had refunded a large number of return tickets. UN officials claim that traffickers take the unused return tickets from immigrants on arrival and then ask for refunds in Istanbul. This is possible because passengers' names are not written on the tickets. Air Bosna claimed that this was "regular practice" around the globe.


Air Bosna spent more than 2.7 million German marks on ticket refunds over the last two years. This year alone, it sold 5.000 tickets, of which 70 per cent required refunds.


Air Bosna's managers claim that the entire scandal is the invention of the international community which, they say, is seeking to secure a better profit for Western airlines flying to BiH. Company officials say that Western diplomats are specifically interested in traffic to Sarajevo, because of the high proportion of international officials flying into BiH.


"All the respectable European aviation companies make a profit in our


market," said Sefkija Cekic, chairman of the Air Bosna's managing board. "Every day in Sarajevo, 200,000 marks worth of air tickets are sold and our company gets only 10 per cent. All the rest goes abroad."


Air Bosna officials are resolute in their own defence. Director Omer Kulic said at the end of August that the company is to hire an independent inspector to prepare a "truer" report on Air Bosna's business operations since it was founded.


Antonio Prlenda is a reporter and military expert for Sarajevo daily


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