May 4, 2000UN agency threatens to suspend operations in Kosovo area
PRISTINA, Kosovo, May 3 -- The United Nations refugee agency said today that it would suspend operations in the Serbian-dominated north of Mitrovica if attacks on its staff and vehicles continued.
Dennis McNamara, the top official for the office of the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, said the agency had been appalled by the latest outbreak of violence last weekend in the ethnically divided city in north Kosovo.
One refugee agency vehicle was destroyed, another was damaged, and a foreign staff member had to flee from a mob into an apartment building, a spokesman for the agency said.
Nine soldiers from the NATO-led peackeeping force, a police officer and four United Nations staff members were wounded in the rioting, Kosovo's international police said. Five vehicles belonging to international agencies were destroyed, and 22 were heavily damaged.
"If the thugs who led that violence continue to target the international community, including our agency and our partners, we would have no choice but to suspend our operations," Mr. McNamara said at a regular news briefing in Kosovo's provincial capital, Pristina.
"Maybe that's their objective, but we're not prepared to be sitting ducks in these situations," he added.
Mitrovica, a city divided into Serbian and Albanian dominated areas, is Kosovo's most dangerous postwar flash point.
Several serious clashes involving Serbs, ethnic Albanians and peacekeepers have broken out there in the last few months.
The violence on Saturday was not the first time the United Nations refugee agency had been the target of violence in Mitrovica, raising questions about the effectiveness of the security provided by the peacekeepers.
The north of Mitrovica is home to the last major urban concentration of Serbs in Kosovo. Serbs have fled from elsewhere in the province in fear of attacks by ethnic Albanians seeking revenge for years of state-sponsored Serbian repression.
At least 240,000 Serbs and other non-Albanians have left the province since June 1999 because of violence or threats by ethnic Albanians.
Many Kosovo Serbs are suspicious of international agencies because of the help they have given to members of the province's ethnic Albanian majority and because of NATO's bombing campaign last year that drove out Serbian forces.
Mr. McNamara noted, however, that the refugee agency's largest program in Europe is in Serbia, aiding Serbian refugees who have fled Kosovo and elsewhere as a result of the past decade's Balkan conflicts.
He said the agency appreciated that the peacekeepers had a difficult job in Mitrovica but made clear he hoped security would improve.
"We certainly realize their difficulties but we also depend on their implementation of their mandate to secure the environment," said Mr. McNamara, a New Zealander who has spent 24 years with the agency.
In Mitrovica today, more than 1,000 Serbs held a rally to demand the swift return of Serbian refugees to their homes.
Mr. McNamara also announced a program aimed at allowing Gypsies who have fled their homes to return. Many Albanians say Gypsies colloborated with the Serbs. But Albanian leaders have recently said that the entire Gypsy community should not be stigmatized.