SARAJEVO (Reuters) - Bosnian police detained 16 people on Wednesday on charges of financing terrorist activities, recruiting and fighting for radical groups in Syria and Iraq, authorities said.
The arrests were made in 17 raids by a combined 200 police across the Balkan country, the State Investigation and Protection Agency (SIPA) said in a statement.
It was the first such security sweep since April, when Bosnia introduced jail terms of up to 10 years for citizens who fight or recruit fighters for conflicts abroad.
The move was aimed at discouraging young Bosnians, some of whom particularly from rural areas have in recent years adhered to the puritanical Sunni Muslim Wahhabi sect, from going to fight in Syria.
“The suspects are connected to financing, organising and recruiting Bosnian citizens to depart for Syria and Iraq, and taking part in armed conflicts in Syria and Iraq, fighting on the side of radical terrorist groups and organisations,” SIPA spokeswoman Kristina Jozic told a news conference.
Experts estimate that several hundred people have left Bosnia, where Muslims make up 45 percent of the population, heading for Syria. Some of them reportedly crossed into Iraq this year to fight for the Islamic State group.
Several dozen have been reported killed, the latest case of which involved a young Bosnian who died in a suicide attack in Iraq in early August, according to local media.
Most Bosnian Muslims, known as Bosniaks, practice a moderate form of Islam.
The police have confiscated a large amount of weapons and ammunition in the raids, said Jozic. She added that 15 more people were found at the locations of the raids and they will be investigated. The operation was still under way.
Jozic declined to identify the suspects. But a regional television station reported that Bilal Bosnic, unofficial leader of the ultra-conservative Salafi movement in Bosnia, had been arrested at his family home in the western town of Buzim.
Bosnic last month reportedly called publicly on young Muslims to join the ranks of the Islamic State.
The Federation television station showed footage of arrests in the northern village of Gornja Maoca, home to members of the radical Wahhabi movement.
Jozic said that SIPA had compiled several reports on people suspected of involvement in organising terrorist activities but that they were out of the country and warrants had been issued for them.
Experts say the trend towards more radical forms of Islam may be due to the influence of Islamist fighters or Mujahideen who came from Iran and Arab states during the Bosnian 1992-95 war to fight alongside the Muslim Bosniaks against the Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats.
Many young Muslims from the Balkans, including Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia, have become radicalised to fight for global Islamic causes in recent years.
Last month, Kosovo police arrested an imam on suspicion of recruiting Kosovars to fight in Iraq and Syria after 40 men had been rounded up and ordered to remain in detention.
Writing by Daria Sito-Sucic; Editing by Zoran Radosavljevic, Dominic Evans and Hugh Lawson