Mitrovica Serbs reject 'pilot project' for return Serbs

KOSOVSKA MITROVICA, May 4, 2000 -- (AFP) Serb leaders from the ethnically divided Kosovar town of Kosovska Mitrovica rejected Wednesday a UN-sponsored "pilot project" for the return of a limited number of Serbs to the province.

In front of 2,000 people gathered on a square in the northern Serb-dominated part of the divided city, leaders of the local branch of the Serb National Council (SNV) condemned the intentions of the "Joint Committee on Returns", created Tuesday.

The committee is co-presided by the head of UN mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), Bernard Kouchner, the head of the Serb Orthodox Church in Kosovo, Bishop Artemije and the commander of the multinational KFOR peacekeeping force, General Juan Ortuno.

"A small group of Serbs wants to usurp the right to determine, with the help of Kouchner and the international community, who can come back or not, and to which location," said Nikola Kabasic, one of the leaders of SNV in Kosovska Mitrovica.

"We will not allow that to happen," he warned.

Assuring the return to Kosovo of all Serbs who had fled the province was a "national duty" for the Serb community, Kabasic said, and warned that the task of bringing the displaced population home would be "long and difficult".

The crowd, which acclaimed the speakers and jeered at the names of Koucher and Artemije, dispersed peacefully after the rally.

At least 240,000 Serbs and other non-Albanians have left the province since June 1999 because of violence or threats by ethnic Albanians.

Father Sava, Artemije's spokesman, said Tuesday the committee was planning the return of Serbs to two villages in Kosovo as the first stage of a larger strategy to see all 240,000 displaced people return to their homes.

But this limited project is judged unacceptable by the SNV of Kosovska Mitrovica, which proposed a plan for the return of 25,000 Serbs in a few months, with the first group of between 1,000 and 1,500 people.

"We expect (the return of) about 1,500 Serbs in the Klina and Istok area," in northwestern Kosovo, but "KFOR and UNMIK expect just a few hundred", Oliver Ivanovic, the head of SNV in Kosovska Mitrovica told AFP.

"We cannot accept some kind of a pilot project, we cannot be part of this pilot project," he said after the rally.

Washington favors the return of some 700 Serbs to Kosovo this summer.

But for Ivanovic, such projects are merely cosmetic. He said the goal of the committee's pilot project was "to return just a few Serbs (to Kosovo), to make a big movie about it, to make a commercial".

Ivanovic said Kouchner, Artemije or American officials such as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright were not capable of assuring the safe return of the Serbs.

"Please let us do it, because we are the only ones who have the power, who have the knowledge, who have the confidence of the Serb population to do it," he said.

He once again criticized Artemije, who has been rejected by the SNV of Kosovska Mitrovica for agreeing to participate in the UN-sponsored administration in Kosovo.

"Artemije does not have any kind of contact on the ground ... they chose Artemije because he cannot do anything," Ivanovic said. "It is a new trick by the international community ... which does not want the Serbs to return."

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