May 10, 2000Old Kosovo foes move closer but still far apart
PRISTINA, Yugoslavia (Reuters) - Kosovo's Albanians and Serbs drew closer on the political front Wednesday but out on the streets thousands of ethnic Albanians demonstrated against plans to resettle Serbs in their region.
In a move hailed by a top international official as historic, Albanian and Serb politicians issued a statement in which each community condemned crimes committed against the other and urged all citizens not to resort to violence.
The leaders closed ranks at a meeting of a multi-ethnic council set up by the United Nations to foster cooperation after over a year of armed conflict that culminated in the 1999 NATO bombing to drive Serbian security forces out of Kosovo.
``This is the most important meeting we've had,'' said Bernard Kouchner, the French head of Kosovo's United Nations-led administration. ``This is, according to my opinion, the historic statement of the tenth of May.''
The U.N. has been working for months to bring Serbs and Albanians closer after a decade of increasingly violent Serbian repression of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority, which has been followed by a post-war plague of revenge attacks on Serbs.
But a protest in the western town of Istok showed how far the United Nations and NATO, which took control of Kosovo last June, still have to go to achieve genuine reconciliation.
NO SPIRIT OF RAPPROCHEMENT IN THE STREETS
The demonstrators, marching just as the politicians in the capital Pristina issued their statement, carried placards with slogans such as ``Shed blood has not dried up yet,'' ``Don't hurt the wounds of Kosovo'' and ``Stop Serb colonies in Kosovo.''
They were protesting against plans floated by Kosovo Serb leaders and U.S. officials to return Serbs to the area.
``We say this project should be stopped. Even talks about returning Serbs to Kosovo should be stopped,'' said Remzije Zeqiraj, the head of the committee which organized the protest.
A figure estimated at more than 200,000 Serbs and members of other minorities fled Kosovo during and after NATO's air war against the forces of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic last year, fearing revenge attacks by ethnic Albanians.
Some international officials urge bringing the Serbs back to Kosovo quickly, anxious to avoid the charge that they waged war to prevent ethnic cleansing of Albanians but have done nothing about Serbs driven out of the Yugoslav province.
But others, including officials from the U.N. refugee agency, have said Serbs should not be encouraged to return at the moment because Kosovo is not yet safe enough.
Despite the presence of around 40,000 peacekeepers from the NATO-led KFOR force since last June, attacks on minorities or cases of harassment against them are still reported daily.
Protesters at Wednesday's rally, who appeared to number more than 2,000, said Serbs would not be welcome back until a host of conditions had been met, including the release of Albanians detained during the conflict and now in Serbian jails.
EMOTIVE PRISONER ISSUE
The issue of the prisoners is highly emotive for ethnic Albanians, who see it as unfinished business from the conflict. International agencies say at least 1,200 Kosovo Albanians are in Serbian jails.
Wednesday's statement by the Kosovo Transitional Council, agreed by all of the around 35 members present except one who objected on a technicality, demanded the handover of all ethnic Albanian prisoners by Yugoslav authorities.
``We are determined that all the citizens of Kosovo should live equally under a law which treats people equally,'' said Xhavit Haliti, an ethnic Albanian member of the council.
``The declaration of the Serb representatives who condemn the Milosevic regime and crimes committed in Kosovo is a good step forward, as is the joint demand for the release of Albanian prisoners,'' he added.
Also Wednesday, the Balkans envoy for a major international organization said ethnic Albanian leaders were willing to put another contentious Kosovo issue -- the final status of the territory -- on the back burner for the moment.
Albanians overwhelmingly favor independence for Kosovo, which at the moment remains legally part of Serb-dominated Yugoslavia although under de facto international rule.
But Kosovo Albanian leaders are now ready to settle for defining Kosovo's interim status for the moment, Albert Rohan of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said after talks in Vienna with ethnic Albanian leader Hashim Thaqi.