PRISTINA, Dec 1, 1999 -- (Reuters) Anxious to bring order to a sometimes chaotic post-war society, Kosovo's international administration on Tuesday began issuing car registration plates.
Bernard Kouchner, the French head of the U.N.-led administration, screwed the first set of green-lettered white plates onto the front of a red Opel car at a registration center on the edge of the capital Pristina.
Several key issues regarding the scheme remained unresolved as it got under way. But officials said it was important to make a start in bringing more order and security to the streets of Kosovo, where many cars now cruise around without any plates.
"For the people, it was obviously the most visible sign of no law and order," Kouchner said.
Although there was no immediate reaction from Belgrade, the decision to issue Kosovo plates seemed likely to revive debate about whether the administration is overstepping its mandate.
While the overwhelming majority of Kosovo Albanians want independence, the U.N. is authorized only to provide substantial autonomy for the territory within the Yugoslavian state.
Many ethnic Albanian drivers were stripped of their plates by Serb officials on the borders with Macedonia and Albania as they fled the Serb campaign of terror which forced around 800,000 people from their homes earlier this year.
Some drivers have removed or defaced their old registration plates as they see them as a symbol of the Serb rule.
As many officials believe Kosovo is awash with stolen cars, many from Germany and Switzerland, the new plates only establish possession of a vehicle rather than ownership.
"This is a provisional system. We must be sure that the cars and the owners have some relation," Kouchner said.
The administration had been under pressure from Kosovo's international police force, which had complained it could not get a grip on car crime, dangerous driving and illegal parking - - all of which are widespread - without plates on cars.
Police officers also hope the new system will enable them to crack down on other offences amid fears that organized crime involving mafias from Albania is quickly taking root in Kosovo.
Among the obstacles still to be overcome is the question of insurance, as no firms could provide the guarantees necessary to issue policies in time for the start of registration.
But officials decided to go ahead with issuing the first plates, confident companies will be ready in the next few days.
"We didn't want to blow this date. We wanted to start. We need positive news on Kosovo," said Albrecht Conze, the head of the U.N. mission's civil documents department.
The question of whether the plates are valid in the rest of Yugoslavia or abroad also remains to be settled, Kouchner said.
In addition, the U.N. has not yet begun registering Kosovo's population so, for the moment at least, it will be unable to verify whether a driver who registers his vehicle has given a correct name and address.
"This is a step by step approach and it is a bit unorthodox to have this step before the other one," Conze acknowledged. "But it was a public necessity."
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