OMARSKA, Bosnia Twenty years after its closure, survivors of a notorious prison camp in wartime Bosnia implored the world's largest steelmaker on Monday to raise a memorial at the site, where it now digs for iron ore.
The Omarska camp in northern Bosnia was one of four Serb-run camps to hold Bosnian Muslims and Croats set up early in the 1992-95 war as forces under General Ratko Mladic set about 'cleansing' the territory of non-Serbs.
It was dismantled in August 1992 after pictures of emaciated inmates were broadcast across the world, and the land is now part of the Prijedor mines controlled by steel giant ArcelorMittal.
Some 5,000 non-Serbs passed through its gates between May and August 1992. Hundreds are believed to have died there and, according to the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, many were raped and tortured.
After acquiring a 51 percent stake in the Prijedor mines in 2004, ArcelorMittal initially agreed to allow camp survivors free access to the site and to build a memorial to its victims.
But Prijedor lies in Bosnia's autonomous Serb Republic, where authorities say the initiative would undermine reconciliation. The proposal remains stalled.
Under a scorching sun, hundreds of Omarska survivors and relatives of those who died released white balloons into the sky to commemorate the camp's closure.
Nedzad Softic, a former inmate who now lives in Britain, looked to dusty, abandoned former camp buildings in corn fields where the detention complex once stood.
"I feel creepy when I see all this," he said. "After so much suffering and lost lives, we cannot have a simple memorial plaque to mark what happened here."
More than 3,000 Muslims and Croats were killed in the city of Prijedor and tens of thousands driven from their homes, crimes for which 16 Bosnian Serbs have been sentenced by the U.N. war crimes tribunal to a total of 230 years in prison.
Some 100,000 people died in the Bosnian war.
A peace deal split the country into two autonomous regions, held together in a delicate power-sharing arrangement based on ethnic quotas.
In a statement emailed to Reuters, ArcelorMittal said it was ready to meet the demands of the former inmates but that local authorities were ultimately responsible for granting permission.
"We are still ready to support the building of a memorial if the interested parties find agreement," the statement said.
Mirsad Duratovic, president of the Prijedor 92 association of camp inmates said the campaign for a memorial "shall not stop until the Omarska camp has been marked in a dignified way."
Duratovic, who was held in three camps and lost a brother, father and 40 family members to the war, added: "We are not giving up our right to remember and nobody will scare us."
(Editing by Matt Robinson and Robin Pomeroy)