Serbs end boycott of Kosovo institution

PRISTINA, Apr 12, 2000 -- (Reuters) A Kosovo Serb leader joined ethnic Albanians in a U.N.-backed council for the first time in over six months on Tuesday, giving a glimmer of hope to officials trying to foster postwar co-existence.

The United Nations hailed the attendance of Rada Trajkovic, a doctor and politician, as an historic step in the process of building cooperation between two communities divided by last year's conflict and years of repression.

"For me, this is really a very important occasion - the beginning, the very beginning, of something looking like a way to democracy," said Bernard Kouchner, the former French health minister who heads Kosovo's UN-led administration.

But Serb leaders in northern Kosovo, estimated to be home to around half the Serb population remaining in the province, condemned the move and said they would not follow suit.

Trajkovic took part in a meeting of Kosovo's Interim Administrative Council, set up by the UN as a sort of mini-cabinet to involve local leaders in decision-making.

Underscoring the continuing tensions between Kosovo's Albanian majority and its Serbs, she traveled to and from the meeting in a UN armored vehicle with an armed police escort.

Trajkovic said she was happy to have attended the meeting and stressed improving the fate of the Serb minority should be the international community's top priority in Kosovo.

"I feel very comfortable. This is my city, my country. I expect that very soon I will come to meetings without an armed vehicle and an escort," she told reporters afterwards.

"This is my small wish. And this small wish will be a big task for the international community."

Since the UN and NATO-led peacekeepers took over responsibility for Kosovo last June, Serbs have been the target of numerous violent attacks by Albanians seeking revenge for years of Serb state-sponsored repression.

Yugoslav authorities say up to 250,000 Serbs and members of other minorities have fled the province.


Serbs quit the fledgling institutions in late September, accusing NATO and the UN of not doing enough to protect Serbs and of bowing to Albanian political pressure on many issues.

Kosovo's Serb National Council, based at Gracanica monastery south of the provincial capital Pristina, decided earlier this month to return as observers for a three-month trial period.

But rival leaders in and around the northern flashpoint city of Mitrovica have refused to go along with the decision, raising questions over how effective the Serb participation can be. They reaffirmed their stance at a meeting on Tuesday.

"I think that now we can say that...the Serbs from Gracanica have no public support. They have no right to represent the Serbs," Mitrovica Serb leader Oliver Ivanovic said.

Kouchner said he was confident the Mitrovica group, which wants more progress on security and the return of Serbs, would join the administration. He said the atmosphere at Tuesday's meeting had been that of a regular political discussion.

"At the beginning, certainly for Rada Trajkovic, it was a bit tense," he told reporters at the UN mission. "But some minutes after, she became more open and it was a normal meeting. The main success of this meeting was to be normal."

The meeting discussed the security situation, the return of Serbs to Kosovo and draft laws regulating the media, agriculture and elections due later this year, Kouchner said.

Hashim Thaqi, an ethnic Albanian political leader and former commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army which fought against Serb rule, said the Serb participation in the council was positive.

Asked if Albanians and Serbs could cooperate, he replied: "Why not? We're people who live in Kosovo and can create the future of Kosovo together."

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