UNHCR suspends work after attacks

PRISTINA, Jun 23, 2000 -- (Reuters) The United Nations refugee agency said on Friday it had temporarily suspended its work in the Serb-held part of the flashpoint Kosovo town of Mitrovica in view of "unacceptable" levels of attacks on its operations there.

"Over the past months, the level and frequency of attacks on humanitarian staff, damage to vehicles and threat to humanitarian operations in north Mitrovica has been totally unacceptable," said Dennis McNamara, special envoy of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in a statement.

He said an initial 48-hour-long suspension of work had already begun, with all UNHCR vehicles relocated to the southern, ethnic Albanian-controlled part of the town and its office in the northern half closed.

At the end of this period the suspension would be reviewed in consultation with the UN mission in Kosovo, the NATO-led Kosovo force (KFOR) peacekeepers, UN police and field staff.

The suspension follows serious unrest in northern Mitrovica on Wednesday in which five UNHCR vehicles were destroyed and more than 20 others damaged, six residences of UN staff attacked and one international aid worker assaulted.

The statement listed repeated incidents involving UNHCR in the town since February, many of them "life-threatening". It added that although humanitarian workers might not be specifically targeted, "they are often caught in the fray of street thuggery which regularly erupts".

McNamara also said UNHCR was requesting that Oliver Ivanovic, the Serbian "self-proclaimed leader of north Mitrovica, publicly denounce this violence and take more vigorous action to prevent it from recurring."

With Kosovo's ethnic Albanian and Serb communities now mainly living in separate areas, the security situation has gradually improved in recent months. But Mitrovica, 40 km (25 miles) north of the capital Pristina, is inhabited by both groups, divided by the Ibar river across which they watch each other with mutual suspicion.

McNamara noted that while UNHCR was subject to violence in Serb-held Mitrovica, further north in Serbia proper it was carrying out its largest aid programme in Europe, for over 500,000 refugees and displaced persons.

"Nowhere else in the region are we facing anything like this," he said of the Mitrovica attacks.

Original article