Sarajevo (CNSNews.com) - Bosnia's fledgling border service and its ability to control the country's borders has become a source of greater concern than usual in light of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
A senior peacekeeping forces official in Bosnia earlier this month said that "hundreds" of Islamic extremists constantly enter and leave the country, and that Bosnia was one of al-Qaida's support centers. A State Department official confirmed this in a U.S. newspaper report.
Citizens of several Islamic countries, among them Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, do not require visas to enter Bosnia.
Most officials say that this in itself is not a problem, but this policy - a legacy of the 1992-95 war in which many Islamic countries supplied funds and weapons for the mainly Muslim Bosnian Army - could be exploited by those wanting to use Bosnia as a criminal base.
The country's 15-month-old border service lacks the money to hire a full force or to pay for sophisticated equipment for background checks, according to the United Nations.
"One of the main problems there is that it requires funding," said United Nations spokesperson Stefo Lehmann in an interview. "There's an expected shortfall where the government is not going to be able to finance the state border service as it exists."
The project director of an independent policy group in Bosnia agreed.
"Training would be a good idea, but after you train these people, you have to have money in the coffers of the state to provide vehicles and to provide buildings," said International Crisis Group Bosnia project director Mark Wheeler.
The combination of the visa regime and the relatively porous borders has given Bosnia the reputation of being the "back door" to Western Europe for thousands of people from further east. After arrival in Bosnia, it's only a matter of being smuggled into Croatia and onward - for large sums paid to well-organized criminal groups known to be operating here.
The number of unaccounted-for people thought to have used Bosnia as an illegal way into Western Europe has dropped 60 percent since the border service began work in June 2000. Under pressure from the international community, the Bosnian government also began requiring visas for Iranian citizens in December 2000.
"That was very successful. We'd like the government to consider other countries, such as Turkey," Lehmann said, adding that about 10,000 Turkish citizens remained unaccounted for after entering Bosnia so far this year.
The international community has been aiding the border service in training and equipment since its inception. The United States donated thousands of dollars to buy patrol jeeps this year, and the European Union will have given 5.3 million euros for procuring equipment by the end of this year.
"Bosnia does have the reputation of being the back door into Europe," Lehmann said. "It's in [Europe's] best interests to provide training and funds to the border service."