Kosovo Serbs close to ending institution boycott

PRISTINA, Jan 31, 2000 -- (Reuters) Leaders of Kosovo's Serb minority are close to a deal with the province's United Nations administration which would end their four-month-old boycott of multi-ethnic institutions.

Officials from Serb groups and the U.N. mission say an agreement could be sealed within the next week or two, although they also stress several hurdles still have to be overcome.

"It's about 90 percent done," said Father Sava, an Orthodox priest and spokesman for the Serb National Council, which represents Serbs from across Kosovo but opposes Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's government.

Under the deal, Serbs would take part in a new joint administration the U.N. is setting up with local leaders to run Kosovo, although they would not be on board by the time the first departments are due to start functioning on Tuesday.

In return, the U.N. has drawn up a document to address the concerns of the Serbs, many of whom are now grouped together in enclaves, living in fear of the revenge attacks by ethnic Albanians which have plagued Kosovo since June.

Outrage at the attacks and a feeling the U.N. and the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force were being too indulgent with the ethnic Albanian majority were behind the Serbs' pullout last September from Kosovo's main post-war forum for dialogue.

Deal would be boost for U.N.

Many Serb leaders have concluded they can gain little by staying on the outside while the U.N. and Albanians get on with running Kosovo. They have come to believe that international officials are serious about helping all communities here.

"It's normal for us to accept this as a reality and to try to build up institutions together with the international community," Rada Trajkovic, another senior member of the Serb National Council, told Reuters.

Any such agreement would be a significant boost for the U.N.-led administration headed by Bernard Kouchner, the former French health minister, which has been working hard over the past few months to get the Serbs back into the fold.

It would also help Western governments to counter claims from Belgrade, and sometimes Moscow, that NATO's bombing last year to end Serb repression of ethnic Albanians was simply about attacking Serbs and that the West is not serious about building a multi-ethnic Kosovo.

The Agenda for Co-existence, as the U.N.-drafted document is called, would allow the creation of special committees in Serb areas to liaise with local administrators and make sure concerns about security and freedom of movement are addressed.

Serbs hope for opposition support

U.N. officials and even Serb leaders say the proposal does not amount to the Serbs' original demand for self-governing Serb cantons within Kosovo. But it does assuage many concerns.

"It is a compromise. It's not everything we intended to have but it is something which is going to meet our basic help our people," Sava told Reuters.

The new committees would function within the municipal structures set up by the U.N., officials say.

But the Serbs still need to take a couple of steps before they will nominate a representative to sit in Kosovo's new Interim Administrative Council, overseeing joint administration.

They will conclude consultations in Kosovo, which they say have been generally favorable so far, and then go to Belgrade in the hope of securing the backing of fellow opponents of Milosevic in Serbia before announcing their final decision.

The Serbs are braced for a blasting from officials in Milosevic's government who have suggested that cooperating with Kouchner's administration is close to treason.

Even if the Serbs agree a deal, their support would not be unconditional. They say they would set a time-limit of two or three months, after which they would review their participation.

"If we don't achieve anything for the Serb community, we can say we reached out our hand to the the international community but it doesn't want to help Serbs," Trajkovic said.