UN Human Rights envoy on the scene of ethnic tensions in Serbia

BELGRADE, Mar 12, 2000 -- (AFP) The UN special rapporteur for human rights in the Balkans, Jiri Dienstbier, on Saturday visited the south of Serbia where inter-ethnic tensions since November have claimed a dozen lives.

Dienstbier met for more than two hours with Presevo Mayor Riza Halimi, the local police chief, and officials from the neighboring town of Bujanovac. He told reporters afterwards that he was "closely following" the situation in the region, the independent Beta news agency reported.

The UN representative said the events in neighboring Kosovo had led to an "isolation of the Albanian population" in this region of southern Serbia where it is in the majority.

The ethnic Albanians in the region "took part in the elections, like all the other citizens of the country (Serbia), and it is thus important to understand them rather than to sit in judgment on them," he warned.

"If in Bujanovac there are 60 percent Albanians and 150 police, all of whom are Serbs, then there is a political error," Beta quoted him as saying.

Contacted by telephone from Belgrade, mayor Halimi told AFP he had informed Dienstbier of "drastic violations of the rights of the Albanians" in the region.

Speaking of his vision of a political settlement, he called for "self-administration of the Albanian community" in the region, along with "a more serious, more civilized approach" to the problem by the Serb authorities and a "presence of international institutions and organizations for human rights."

The mayor said that several Albanians from the village of Raince near Presevo had been beaten up by a special Serb police patrol on Saturday during Dienstbier's visit, in the first such incident in at least three weeks.

Between 60,000 and 70,000 ethnic Albanians still live in the region after some 25,000 left during the Kosovo conflict and after the end of NATO bombings in mid-June 1999.

Dienstbier, who was starting a 10-day visit to Yugoslavia, was to go on to Kosovo, Montenegro and Belgrade. His mission ends on March 21.

Original article