Pope visits Bosnia in 'delicate' security context

Pope Francis Saturday heads to Bosnia, where nearly 100,000 people would greet him, a visit posing a major security challenge for the country that became a fertile soil for home-grown jihadists.

The pope's visit to Sarajevo comes a month after an attack on a police station in northeastern Bosnia in which a member of a local Islamist group shot dead an officer and wounded two others before he was killed in the shootout.

"We must finally face the fact that there is a serious problem of terrorism which is growing in Bosnia," Security Minister Dragan Mektic said after the deadly attack in Zvornik.

The previous attack, labelled terrorist by the government, occurred in 2011, when a Islamist gunmen opened fire at the US embassy in Sarajevo. He wounded a policeman before being injured himself and arrested.

But, the incidents did not put into question the pontiff's visit, announced in February.

"There is no particular concern for the safety" of the pope, Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said.

Jasmin Ahic, a professor at the Sarajevo University Faculty of Criminology, estimated that the moment of the pope's visit was however "very delicate".

"The pope arrives at a time when the security threat is at a rather high level," Ahic, an expert on terrorism issues, told AFP.

"It is really a huge security challenge. But if such a visit goes well, it will prove that the capacity of the country's security authorities is at satisfactory level."

Also, the visit would have been certainly annulled if the threat was at the highest degree, he added.

Bosnia's inter-ethnic war in the 1990s attracted hundreds of Islamists from across the Arab world to support Muslim forces.

Most of the foreign fighters -- known as 'mujahedeen' -- have now left, but the seed had already been sown.

Bosnia's Muslims, who make up 40 percent of the country's 3.8 million inhabitants, are mostly moderates. But the strict interpretation of Islam by the foreign fighters has been adopted by some locals, who 20 years since the 1992-1995 war here ended fight alongside jihadists in the Middle East.

Some 200 Bosnians are believed to have joined jihadist groups fighting in Iraq and Syria, of whom some 50 are believed to have already returned to Bosnia, the intelligence services estimate.

"Those who return to the country are very dangerous ... after such an experience, they are not the same people," Ahic warned.

In the past several months local authorities have arrested and charged with terrorism offences more than a dozen man suspected of fighting with the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq or recruiting them.

If found guilty the suspects face up to 20 years in jail under a law adopted by the Balkans country last year.

The trial of a radical imam, a former member of a mujahedeen unit in Bosnia's war, opened before a Serajevo court in January.

Husein Bosnic was the first person to go on trial here accused of recruiting people for jihad.

The authorities claim that the security situation is under control and that the most strict measures were taken to ensure that the papal visit goes on well.

"We will not allow anyone who possibly thinks otherwise and who could endanger the visit to provide a space" for implementing his intentions, assured recently head of a unit coordinating police and intelligence services, Mirsad Vilic.

According to Vilic, the threat factors were being constantly assessed in cooperation also with the regional intelligence services.

"However, an absolute security does not exist and everyone has to be aware of that," he warned.

The Croat member of Bosnia's tripartite presidency, Dragan Covic, urged the faithfuls not to hesitate to come to Sarajevo due to security concerns.

"We have put everything in place so that everything goes on well," he emphasized.

During Pope John Paul II's visit to Bosnia in 1997, two years after its war ended, police discovered explosives under a Sarajevo bridge that the pontiff was to cross just hours later. Those placing it were never found.

Izvor: AFP / Yahoo

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