Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Serbs agree 2,960 Kosovars still missing after wa

Serbia accepted at talks with Kosovo Albanians on Wednesday an International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) figure estimating 2,960 mostly Kosovo Albanians are missing, presumed dead, after the 1998-99 war.

The step was taken at their first talks for a year on the vexed issue of the missing, about 2,400 of whom are Kosovo Albanians. Settling their fate and recovering their remains is considered essential for future reconciliation.

Francois Stamm of the ICRC, which organised the meeting, said it marked "an important step forward in what we hope will be a process that brings clarity for thousands of families still waiting for news of their missing relatives".

"Not closing these cases will make reconciliation difficult".

The United Nations says direct dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina is crucial for a better climate in the province ahead of talks this year on whether the Kosovo Albanian majority gets the independence it demands from Serbia.

Kosovo has been run by the U.N. since 1999 when NATO bombing drove out Serb forces to stop the killing of ethnic Albanian civilians caught up in a guerrilla insurgency.

Some 10,000 people died in the war and there were allegations of random brutality by both sides. About 2,400 of the missing are ethnic Albanians.

The corpses of more than 800 ethnic Albanians killed in Kosovo and trucked hundreds of miles north were found in three mass graves near Belgrade and eastern Serbia in 2001. Fewer than half have been returned, a rate the U.N. says is far too slow.

The talks were due to restart last week after a year in limbo but were postponed when Kosovo's ethnic Albanian Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj surrendered to the U.N war crimes court in The Hague to face charges.

"I do think we came with more moral credit now after the resignation and voluntary surrender of our prime minister," said Nexhmedin Spahiu, an Albanian representative in the talks.

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