NEWS

Kosovo attacks will not stop Serb returns, local UN official says

PRISTINA (Reuters) – Serbs who fled Kosovo in fear after the 1999 war are expected to return in growing numbers in the coming years despite several deadly attacks this summer, a UN official in the province said. Peggy Hicks, who heads the UN mission’s Office of Returns and Communities, said killings including the slaying of two Serb youngsters bathing in a river last month had a «chilling effect» on displaced Serbs planning to come back to their prewar homes. But she said it had not brought the process to a halt. The West sees refugee returns as crucial to Kosovo’s future and the issue is expected to be a key topic in the first postwar talks between majority Albanian leaders and Belgrade later this year. «This is a big month for returns in Kosovo and there is a lot that is happening,» Hicks said in a recent interview. «There are locations in every area of Kosovo right now where we have returns projects that will and are continuing to make progress,» she said. «Despite the horrible crimes that have happened, the work is continuing.» The Serbian government says Kosovo’s UN-led administration has failed to protect the beleaguered Serb community. At least seven Serbs have been killed in the province of 2 million people since June and no one has been convicted. Western officials running the province after NATO’s 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia acknowledge the murders represent a serious setback but insist the overall situation remains much better than it was in the immediate post-conflict period. «There has been a substantial improvement in security conditions for minority populations in Kosovo,» Hicks said. «This does not mean of course, as August has shown, that conditions are safe.» She said more than 1,000 Serbs returned during the first eight months of the year, an increase of 70 percent. «2002 and 2003 are both years in which the number of returnees far exceeds the number of those leaving.» This is still a small figure compared with the roughly 180,000 Serbs who left Kosovo in the summer of 1999 and later, fearing retribution for years of Serbian repression of ethnic Albanians under then Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. There are under 100,000 Serbs now in Kosovo, restricted by fear of violence to living in enclaves and guarded by the 21,000-strong, NATO-led peacekeeping force KFOR, plus a UN international police force of 4,500. But Hicks pointed to the example of neighboring Bosnia, where the return of the minority population only started picking up four years after the 1992-95 war. Large numbers have since come back, with the UN refugee agency putting the total figure at 420,000. «We understand fully that the pace of return gives rise to a great deal of frustration,» she said. «There are up to 200,000 or so minorities who are displaced and who need assistance. Some tens of thousands of people would like to return.»