Northern Kosovo Serb leader brands UN return plans 'blackmail'

ZUBIN POTOK, May 5, 2000 -- (Reuters) The leader of Kosovo's northern Serbs accused the international community Thursday of using the issue of returning Serb refugees to "blackmail" his hardline splinter group into joining UN-backed organizations.

Oliver Ivanovic, who presented UN representatives with a plan to return Kosovo Serb refugees to remote villages in the northwest, said their insistence on his first joining their Joint Committee on Returns (JCR) was a "very serious political game."

"It's a very important issue, a historical issue, and now somebody played a game with that," he told reporters after the meeting.

His political rivals in the southern enclave of Gracanica joined the JCR when it was set up Tuesday to coordinate the return of some 200,000 Serbs who have fled the Yugoslav province since KFOR international peacekeepers moved in last June.

The Gracanica Serbs, led by Bishop Artemije, have also signed up to the joint power-sharing administration set up in December by the UN mission here (UNMIK) which the northern Serbs have boycotted.

Ivanovic, based in the ethnically divided town of Kosovska Mitrovica, has said such a move would legitimize what he branded the "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovo's Serbs under UNMIK.

He told Mitrovica's UN administrator Bill Nash Tuesday that with his and KFOR's help he would like to move up to 1,500 Serb refugees back to their homes in the Osojane valley near Istok in the northwest by mid June.

The JCR has also said it will use Osojane as one of the villages in its pilot project to return Serbs in safety to their homes.

But one UNMIK official said there would be "only one plan" for Osojane.

"There will not be returns outside of the JCR, not orderly returns," he said, adding: "It will up to UNMIK and KFOR to finalize the way for the return."

"I think it's becoming clear now among all the other representatives of the Serb communities in Kosovo about the need for coordinated action to achieve a safe, orderly and sustainable return," he said.

The meeting in Zubin Potok, a village 20 kilometers (12 miles) west of Mitrovica, came a day after Ivanovic publicly rejected the JCR in front of a crowd of some 2,000 gathered in the mainly Serb north of the town.

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