Breakaway Kosovo Serbs join repatriation talks for first time

PRISTINA, Aug 1, 2000 -- (AFP) The leader of Kosovo's largest single Serbian community took part for the first time in talks on the return of tens of thousands of displaced Serbs to the volatile province.

"It's a first step," said Oliver Ivanovic, leader of the Serbian community in the ethnically divided northern town of Kosovska Mitrovica, as he left the talks.

Ivanovic had boycotted the UN-sponsored Joint Committee on Returns (JCR) since its creation in May, saying its projects were inadequate, although the province's mainstream Serbian leadership had backed its creation.

"We are very happy that Mr Ivanovic is here today," said Eric Chevallier, a special advisor to Kosovo's UN administrator Bernard Kouchner, adding that he hoped the Serb leader was taking part in a constructive spirit.

Ivanovic said he had felt free to take part in the talks because the problem of Serbian participation in the forthcoming municipal elections in Kosovo had been resolved.

The minority Serbian community earlier this month agreed to the need for the October poll but most Serbs have still to register to vote.

The JCR was set up to coordinate the return of Kosovo Serbs who fled the province to escape revenge attacks from ethnic Albanians, who themselves had suffered from Belgrade's anti-Albanian policies in the 1998-99 conflict.

At least 210,000 non-Albanians have left Kosovo since the war ended in June 1999. An estimated 100,000 Serbs still live in the province, most of them in enclaves under UN protection.

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