Thursday, March 17, 2005

Kosovo's ethnic divide remains a year after anti-Serb violence

Associated Press Writer
534 words
17 March 2005
02:10 pm
Associated Press Newswires
(c) 2005. The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.

PRISTINA, Serbia-Montenegro (AP) - The top U.N. official in Kosovo urged the province's government Thursday to improve living conditions for minorities to prevent a repeat of last year's anti-Serb violence.

Soren Jessen-Petersen said the events last March "cast a shadow over Kosovo," and urged the province's predominantly ethnic Albanian government to "intensify its efforts to bring about real improvement in the living conditions of the minorities."

Jessen-Petersen spoke on the anniversary of the anti-Serb violence, when mobs of ethnic Albanians targeted Serbs and other minorities for three days throughout this U.N.-administered province.

Nineteen people were killed and more than 900 injured in the riots, sparked by the drowning of three ethnic Albanian boys. The police investigation into the children's deaths was inconclusive, but ethnic Albanians hastily blamed them on Serbs.

At least 600 homes were destroyed and 4,000 people -- mainly Serbs -- were forced to flee to safety. More than 30 churches were damaged or destroyed during.

The head of Serbia's Orthodox Christian Church, Patriarch Pavle, asked Serbian churches to let their bells toll for five minutes at midday Thursday in memory of the violence.

Bishop Artemije, who heads the Kosovo Serb diocese, expressed bitterness that a year after the rampage, "nothing has been done to improve the unbearable situation" faced by the province's Serbs.

"After the pogrom last year, we were given promises that everything that was destroyed would be rebuilt. But those were just empty promises," the bishop said.

The United Nations and NATO, which have controlled Kosovo since the end of the war in mid-1999, were criticized for failing to protect Serbs and other minorities during the riots.

Marking the grim anniversary, several hundred Serbs still living in central Kosovo held a protest rally demanding Jessen-Petersen's resignation.

"Petersen's promises are hollow" read a banner. The Serb protesters also lighted candles and prayed for victims of last year's violence.

Officials say they have taken steps to prevent riots from recurring, such as making it easier for peacekeepers to respond, stepping up cooperation with police and bringing in more armored vehicles and other equipment.

"One year on, Kosovo has come a long way," Jessen-Petersen said. "Lessons have been learned, by us and by the politicians and people of Kosovo."

Serbia's prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, said in Belgrade that as many as 60,000 Kosovo's Albanians took part in the outbreak of violence last year "which clearly indicates that it was not spontaneous ... but an organized attempt to ethnically cleanse the province of Serbs."

Meanwhile, Serbia's president, Boris Tadic, called Thursday for talks between Belgrade and Pristina. He also said he was ready to talk with ethnic Albanian politicians in the province.

"I believe that the time has come for talks," Tadic said during a visit to refugee camps outside Belgrade where Kosovo Serbs who fled the violence had sought refuge.

He added, however, that independence for Kosovo, as demanded by its ethnic Albanian majority, was "unacceptable," and would jeopardize stability of the region.

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