BELGRADE, May 31 (Reuters) - The U.N. has contingency plans for an exodus of thousands of Serbs from Kosovo in the event that the majority Albanian province wins independence from Serbia in talks this year.
According to the Belgrade daily Politika, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is braced for up to 70,000 leaving the province if Serbia loses sovereignty.
Despite Belgrade's strong opposition, Kosovo is widely expected to win independence in U.N.-mediated talks that began in February and could finish within the year.
A UNHCR spokeswoman told Reuters an internal document did exist, in order to "be ready to help a certain number of people who may be affected by a decision". But she declined to divulge details of the plan.
"Extending assistance is a logistical operation and the aim of such plans is for the organisation to be ready to provide protection if it proves to be necessary. It is possible that nothing happens at all," the UNHCR's Vesna Petkovic said.
Politika quoted the plan as saying Kosovo's independence "could provoke further political instability and civil disturbance and result in fresh movements of minorities from Kosovo towards the Serbia and Montenegro interior".
Even if Kosovo gets independence without large-scale violence "it is expected that 57,000 people would change their place of residence, of which around 33,000 would come to Serbia," Politika quoted the contingency plan as saying.
But if Albanians attacked Serbs, as many as 70,000 could seek safety in Serbia, it forecasts.
VERY LITTLE LEFT
On Tuesday, Serbia-Montenegro Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic warned major Western powers not to force Kosovo's independence on Belgrade, predicting "turbulence" across the Balkans if it was amputated from a sovereign Serbia.
There are around 100,000 Serbs left in Kosovo. An exodus on the scale foreseen would leave only pockets of Serb land.
Outnumbered 20-1 by two million ethnic Albanians, many Serbs say they would simply leave Kosovo, the territory considered Serbia's religious heartland dating back 1,000 years.
NATO bombed Yugoslavia in 1999 to drive out Serb forces and halt the killings and ethnic cleansing employed by Belgrade in a two-year war with Albanian separatist rebels. An estimated 10,000 ethnic Albanians died and 800,000 fled.
As Western alliance forces deployed, about half of the Serb population in turn fled a wave of Albanian revenge attacks.
Those who stayed on have become increasingly marginalised. They fear for the future and point to NATO's failure in March 2004 to prevent Albanian mobs from overrunning Serb enclaves, torching homes and churches. Nineteen people died in the riots.
The United Nations and a 17,000-strong NATO peace force stationed in Kosovo say a repeat is impossible.
Politika said the UN plans three contingencies: independence within current borders, autonomy within Serbia, and independence for Kosovo below the River Ibar, partitioninig the Serb-dominated north.
Major powers have ruled out partitioning Kosovo but there are indications that contingency plans exist for a breakaway attempt by Serbs in the divided city of Mitrovica. (Additional reporting by Beti Bilandzic)