UNHCR: over 150 000 non-Albanians fled Kosovo

PRISTINA, May 23, 2000 -- (Reuters) The UN refugee agency said on Monday it had registered over 150,000 people, mainly Serbs, who have left Kosovo since peacekeepers and the United Nations took over responsibility there last June.

The statistics are likely to provide a new reference point in the war of words and figures waged between authorities in Serb-dominated Yugoslavia and the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force.

Yugoslav officials have alleged 350,000 Serbs and members of other minorities fled the province to other parts of Yugoslavia, fearing attacks from ethnic Albanians which have plagued Kosovo in the past year. NATO has insisted the figure is far lower.

KFOR has also said it believed many Serbs left even before the peacekeepers arrived, during NATO's bombing to drive out Serb forces and end repression of the ethnic Albanian majority.

The UNHCR statistics, however, show that only 20,000 of those registered in Serbia said they had left during the bombing.

The figures point to a far lower total of people who have left Kosovo than Yugoslav officials suggest. But they are roughly in line with a figure from the Yugoslav Red Cross and would suggest well over half Kosovo's pre-war Serb population has fled.

Statistics on Kosovo's displaced can assume great political importance.

Belgrade is keen for ammunition to support its case that KFOR has not protected Serbs. NATO is equally anxious to refute charges it fought a war to stop ethnic cleansing of Albanians but has done little to prevent Serbs being forced out.

In registering displaced people from Kosovo in March and April this year, UNHCR found 180,000 in Serbia and around 30,000 in Montenegro, the smaller republic in the Yugoslav federation.

More than 150,000 of those in Serbia fled after the bombing. Figures for when those in Monetenegro had fled were not available but UNHCR officials said they expected a similar pattern.

Serbs made up the largest group of Kosovo displaced, accounting for 136,000 people in Serbia and more than 7,000 in Montenegro. Gypsies were the next biggest group, with a total of more than 25,000 having left Kosovo.

UNHCR officials said the registration process would continue but they did not expect the totals to change significantly.

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