KFOR commander says Serbs could return to Kosovo

PRISTINA, May 8, 2000 -- (Reuters) The new commander of Kosovo's NATO-led peacekeeping force said parts of the province might be safe enough for displaced Serbs to return but that the process would have to be carried out with extreme care.

Spanish Lieutenant-General Juan Ortuno, in his first news conference since taking up command of the KFOR force three weeks ago, also appealed to the people of Kosovo to show more tolerance or risk wasting an historic opportunity.

While most of the more than 800,000 ethnic Albanian refugees who fled Serb forces last year have now returned to Kosovo, KFOR has failed to stop a fresh exodus of Serbs and others amid revenge attacks by ethnic Albanians.

The number of Serbs and members of other minorities who have fled since KFOR and the United Nations took responsibility for Kosovo last June is the subject of dispute but Yugoslav authorities put the figure at more than 200,000.

Asked if the province was safe for the return of refugees, Ortuno replied: "Not Kosovo, but there are different areas in Kosovo in which it could happen.

"This is why the return of the last refugees and... displaced persons should be done in a very well-prepared and ordered way."

The U.N. refugee agency has said it does not believe the time is yet right to encourage Serbs to return. It says the security situation is still too risky and memories of the conflict which claimed thousands of lives are still fresh.

Despite the presence of around 40,000 KFOR troops and more than 2,000 UN police in Kosovo, attacks on minorities and violent crime in general are still reported daily.

Gunmen wounded three Serbs, including a young girl, in the eastern town of Vitina on Sunda, KFOR said. It also said a UN bus in the Serb-dominated north of the city of Mitrovica had been stoned after the driver was identified as Albanian.

On Monday morning, Ekrem Rexha, a former commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army, an ethnic Albanian guerrilla group, was shot dead on his way to work in the southern city of Prizren, the United Nations said.

"Tolerance and co-existence are key words for the future of Kosovo. There must be more evidence of acceptance by and between different ethnic groups," Ortuno said.

"The focus of the world is still on Kosovo but this will not last forever," he cautioned. "It is up to the people of Kosovo to seize the opportunity."

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