BELGRADE, May 12 (AFP) - Officials from Serbia and Kosovo opened direct talks Thursday on the return of thousands of refugees displaced after the 1998-99 conflict between Serbian forces and ethnic Albanian separatists.
"I think the process took off well and we are looking forward within the next few weeks to have a second meeting," said Gottfried Koefner, a representative of the UN refugee agency who is chairing the talks.
No details of the discussions were released but Koefner said they were "dealing with practical issues" and would continue in Belgrade and Pristina over the coming weeks.
"The parties have agreed politically before that there should be direct dialogue to move the issue and the question of returns ahead," he said.
Serbia says more than 200,000 Serbs fled Kosovo after NATO bombing forced it to end its crackdown on the separatist rebellion in the mainly ethnic Albanian province. Kosovo Albanian officials put the figure at only some 70,000.
Only about 12,500 refugees have returned to Kosovo over the past six years despite repeated security guarantees from NATO peacekeepers and the UN mission which took control of the province at the end of the war.
Violent anti-Serb riots which swept the southern province for three days in March last year forced thousands more Serbs to flee their homes and underscored Belgrade's claims that the UN has failed to provide a safe environment.
Serbian and Kosovo politicians held their first face-to-face talks since the war in Vienna in October 2003, agreeing to launch an ongoing dialogue on matters of mutual concern such as missing people, energy and refugees.