Aid groups won't hurry back to Mitrovica

PRISTINA, Jun 27, 2000 -- (Reuters) International aid agencies that have pulled out of Serb-held areas of Kosovo's flashpoint town of Mitrovica will not return until there are better guarantees for the safety of their staff, a UN spokeswoman said on Monday.

"If we were to go back without some kind of explicit agreement (with Kosovo Serb leaders) then next time we will have somebody killed. It will not just be a matter of somebody being beaten, which we have already seen," said Paula Ghedini of the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, which coordinates the international aid effort in Kosovo.

Ghedini showed Reuters a copy of a letter from Oliver Ivanovic, self-proclaimed leader of the Serbs in Mitrovica, in which he said the humanitarian organizations' decision on Friday to suspend work was "hasty and politicized".

He said the Serb National Council in north Mitrovica did not support violence and had condemned individuals responsible for recent attacks on aid staff and their vehicles.

But Ghedini said this fell short of what was needed.

In less than a year, 90 aid agency vehicles had been damaged and 36 destroyed in Mitrovica in what were clearly coordinated attacks, she said.

"There is a feeling of impunity among these mobs - they feel they can get away with anything they want to," she added.

The World Food Program and the UN Children's Fund UNICEF have also closed their offices and pulled back their staff and equipment from northern Mitrovica, as have many private aid organizations, following a series of violent incidents dating back to February.

"We haven't had any indication that things are different and we are not going to send in (our staff) thinking that they are sitting ducks again," Ghedini said.

She said Dennis McNamara, the UNHCR chief in Kosovo, was meeting Serbs and UN security staff in Mitrovica on Monday and the situation would be reviewed by the agencies daily. In the meantime, UN police were working on an improved security response for the aid workers.

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.

Original article