Serbs Accused Of Gassing Muslims -- Human-Rights Group Says U.S. Knew

WASHINGTON - Bosnian Serbs may have used chemical weapons against Muslims fleeing Srebrenica when the Serbs conquered the U.N. safe area in 1995, a leading human-rights group said yesterday.

A spokeswoman for Human Rights Watch said in congressional testimony the organization drew its conclusion based on its own investigation, a U.S. intelligence assessment, the fact that the Pentagon had conducted two investigations, and repeated hints from U.S. officials.

The Pentagon disputed the conclusion and challenged the group's credibility. "There is no evidence that any chemical weapons were used" by the Serbs against the Muslims, Col. Steve Campbell, a spokesman, told Newsday. He also said Human Rights Watch has "an agenda" and he could not understand why anyone would give them credibility.

Campbell said he was unaware of any investigation of the use of gas at Srebrenica.

Speaking before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Human Rights, Diane Paul said the Pentagon's first probe was in the summer of 1996 and was followed by a larger investigation. In late 1996, the U.S. intelligence community had information that chemical weapons "may have been used in Srebrenica," she said. Despite repeated requests, the Defense Department has refused to release the results of either probe, she said.

The weapon in question is thought to be BZ - a chemical-warfare agent that causes psychological and physical incapacitation - or a compound of BZ, she said. The gas was in the arsenal of the federal Yugoslav army before the breakup of the multiethnic Balkan state.

Human Rights Watch's statement came at the first congressional hearing on Srebrenica, the site of Europe's worst massacre since World War II, in which as many as 8,000 men and boys are presumed to have been killed. It was one of several disclosures that raised questions about the Pentagon's policy toward war crimes in the former Yugoslavia.

A Srebrenica survivor said the U.S. Army has daily dealings with Serb officials who either directed the killing or are familiar with it, but the U.S. military has refused to look into their past. Hasan Nuhanovic, 30, said the man who coordinated the executions was Dragomir Vlasic, the police chief in Zvornik, which, like Srebrenica, lies in the American zone.

He said he provided videotaped evidence documenting Vlasic's role to the U.S. military in Kalasija and to the international community's high representative, Carlos Westendorp, but neither would investigate. Last month, a Hague Tribunal investigator called on Vlasic, only to find he had gone into hiding.