Kosovo Serbs describe life under siege to UN envoys

GNJILANE, Apr 30, 2000 -- (Reuters) Kosovo minority Serbs described lives under virtual siege from hostile ethnic Albanians to senior UN envoys on Saturday, a day after a small town church was blown up.

A UN Security Council delegation has been getting a first-hand look at the mixed record of post-war international rule in Kosovo. Normal life has been broadly restored for majority Albanians but most Serbs fear leaving their homes.

Ethnic Albanians, grateful for NATO air strikes in 1999 that halted a brutal anti-separatist campaign by Serbian security forces, have welcomed the UN envoys with open arms.

Serbs still in the Yugoslav province - most have fled ethnic Albanian reprisals - have received the delegation with courtesy at best and hostility at worst.

The delegation, including Russian and Chinese envoys who have been most critical of the NATO-backed UN authority's performance in Kosovo, visited the town of Gnjilane on Saturday to check on its vanishing Serb minority.

Gnjilane had 12,000 Serbs before the NATO-led KFOR peace force entered Kosovo last June. Now it has 800, most of them clustered around the 17th century Orthodox St Nikola Church whose compound is under 24-hour KFOR guard.


The envoys' visit coincided with several anti-Serb incidents.

On Orthodox Good Friday, the Serb church in the small town of Vitina, some 20 km (12 miles) from Gnjilane, was dynamited by suspected ethnic Albanian extremists. No one was in the church at the time and there were no injuries.

In the flashpoint city of Mitrovica, Kosovo Albanians stoned a UN bus escorting Serbs to an Orthodox Easter service. The UN Security Council delegation was visiting the divided city at the time.

On Thursday, a 70-year-old Serb woman was shot dead in her home in Gnjilane.

Ljubisa Simic, local Serb representative of the International Rescue Committee relief group, told the UN delegation about his people's plight in a briefing inside the St Nikola compound, a leafy, tidy oasis of calm in this teeming market town.

"If Serbs here had security and freedom of movement, there would be no need for humanitarian aid," said Simic.

"Now, farmers can't go into their fields to work because they're just afraid to go out. So the crops are not sown. In towns like Gnjilane, they can't leave their homes without KFOR or U.N. police escorts.

"The destruction of the Vitina church contributes to the general feeling of insecurity - can we stay or must we go?"

Peter Deck, a UN relief official, said local Serb fears were aggravated by an new influx of ethnic Albanians from nearby southern Serbia. "This just adds pressure on the Serbs, everyone of whom we know has their house up for sale."

UN officials have erected two tents inside the church compound where kindergarten and primary school classes are held for Serb children. "They have to walk here with a parent and a UN police escort," Simic said.

Bangladeshi Ambassador Anwarul Karim Chowdhury, heading the Security Council group, said violence would never bring peace and progress Kosovo.

"Everyone has to make their own effort. We appeal for peaceful co-existence here. We are giving the same message wherever we go," he said.

The delegation returns to New York on Sunday to report on ways of improving the Kosovo mission. Kosovo's UN administration chief Bernard Kouchner has complained of underfunding as it seeks to curb ethnic crime and rebuild a war-shattered infrastructure.

Original article