Committee for return of Kosovo Serbs launched

GRACANICA, May 3, 2000 -- (AFP) Kosovo's Serb leaders and the province's UN administrators on Tuesday set up an official panel to oversee the return of tens of thousands of Serbs who have fled here since last June.

The Joint Committee on Returns, launched in the Gracanica monastery on the southern fringes of Pristina, also identified two villages to be used as pilot projects for the first arrivals.

The committee will be operate under the chairmanship of Bishop Artemije, head of the Serb National Council (SNV) in Kosovo, the head of the UN mission (UNMIK), Bernard Kouchner, and the commander of the international peacekeeping force KFOR, Spanish General Juan Ortuno.

It will coordinate the return of Kosovo Serbs who fled the province to escape revenge attacks from ethnic Albanians, who themselves had suffered from Belgrade's anti-Albanian policies. The panel will identify communities for them to move to, rebuild their houses and maintain their security.

Kouchner insisted at the signing ceremony on the need for proper preparations for the homecomings.

"We want maximum security, we cannot take any risks," said the former French health minister, adding that the committee would be the sole official body dealing with the returns.

Washington said last month it would aid the return of some 700 Serbs to northwest Kosovo this summer.

The Serbian leader of the divided northern town of Kosovska Mitrovica, Oliver Ivanovic, has also launched a programme for the return of 25,000 Serbs.

The new council has already earmarked the villages of Osljane in the northwest and Slivovo, some 30 kilometres (18 miles) south of Pristina, as pilot projects for the returns, said Artemije's spokesman Father Sava Janjic.

The houses in the deserted villages are mostly in ruins, he said, but added that he hoped to see the first arrivals in June.

Most of Kosovo's remaining Serbs live in enclaves guarded by KFOR troops.

Some 240,000 non-Albanians have fled the Yugoslav province since the NATO-led peacekeepers moved in last June amid widespread violence.

Sava said there could not be 100 percent security for minorities in Kosovo but said that by creating the committee the Serbs wished to find a "middle way."

He said the SNV also wanted to avoid a "hasty, disorganised process in which people will be brought into hostile areas without necessary preparation and coordination by KFOR and the UN."

"But on the other hand we would not want to wait years for the security situation to be created and then start bringing the people back," he added.

He also acknowledged that the scheme would create new Serb enclaves.

"Enclaves are the reality of Kosovo ... because of the lack of security," he said.

"Militarily protected enclaves are for the moment the only possible surrounding in which Serbs and non-Albanians can survive in the atmosphere which is in many cases very hostile," he added.

Sava said initial contact had been made with the Serbs of Osljane, who are currently in Serbia, to kickstart the programme.

He said they were ready to return but had been told by Yugoslavia media that only the Yugoslav army could guarantee their safety, which he stressed was not realistic.

"We hope we can help the people to understand the reality at the moment and to openly support the activity of SNV," he said.

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