UNHCR alarmed by Nato refugee return estimate

PRISTINA, Apr 14, 2000 -- (Reuters) The United Nations refugee agency expressed alarm on Thursday at a NATO suggestion that it would soon be safe for up to 25,000 Serb civilians to return to Kosovo.

Dennis McNamara, the agency's special envoy for the Balkans, told Reuters that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had no evidence to back up the NATO figure.

At the moment, he said, the UNHCR could not promote any large-scale return of Serb civilians to homes they fled after NATO air strikes drove Serb forces from the province last year.

"If this NATO report is correct, I'm extremely concerned that such a statement should be made publicly at this time," McNamara said in an interview in the Kosovo capital Pristina.

"As far as I'm aware there's absolutely no basis for speculation of numbers of this magnitude."

The figure of 25,000 was mentioned by a NATO official at a briefing in Brussels on Wednesday.

McNamara's views were backed up by Eduardo Arboleda, the deputy chief of the UNHCR office in Belgrade.

"I have no idea where they (NATO) get these figures from, they are not in charge of returning people," he told a news conference.

After the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force and the UN took responsibility for Kosovo last June, Serbs and members of other minorities flooded out amid a wave of revenge attacks by ethnic Albanians angry at years of Serb repression.

Yugoslav authorities put the number of displaced people from Kosovo at more than 200,000.

McNamara said the UNHCR was the only international agency with access to the displaced, now living mainly in Serbia proper. They were telling officials that they wanted to go back but realized the security situation was not yet right, he said.

"There are some exceptions who really want to go back and see if they can get their properties back, especially in the spring, but they're relatively few," he said.


The NATO official's suggestion and UNHCR's reaction reflect a long-simmering row between the two organizations over returns.

Some UNHCR officials believe NATO is pushing too hard on the issue because it is anxious not to be seen to have endorsed ethnic cleansing of Serbs from Kosovo, having fought a war to stop ethnic cleansing of Albanians from the province.

"If this (report about the NATO suggestion) is correct, it worries me because NATO's role is not to organize and announce the repatriation of refugees," said McNamara, also a senior member of Kosovo's UN-led administration.

Feelings are still running high in Kosovo over Serb repression and atrocities committed against Albanians. Serbs are still the target of regular revenge attacks.

McNamara said the focus for the moment should be on improving the lives of Serbs who have stayed in Kosovo, many of whom live in heavily guarded, isolated rural ghettos.

"We need to work together with KFOR on securing the Serb populations who are here, getting them access to basic services, freedom of movement, which are the essentials - the minimum essentials - for us to promote return," he said.

Original article