Thursday, August 31, 2006

Kosovo Albanians handed Serb transport test

PRISTINA, Serbia, Aug 31 (Reuters) - The United Nations handed control of bus and train services for Kosovo Serbs to the province's ethnic Albanian leaders on Thursday, in a fresh test of their commitment to minority rights as they bid for independence.

The U.N. mission running Kosovo had been in charge of "humanitarian" bus routes and the "Freedom of Movement Train" that 100,000 Serbs scattered across Kosovo rely on to send children to schools and make shopping trips.

Many Kosovo Serbs, ghettoised since the end of the 1998-99 war and pullout of Serb forces, refuse to venture into urban centres dominated by Kosovo's 90-percent ethnic Albanian majority, where they expect discrimination and fear attack.

But the Albanians, who in 1999 went from persecuted minority within Serbia to lords of their own manor, are under pressure from the West to show they can provide for all Kosovo's citizens as they push for independence this year.

"I sign this Memorandum of Understanding with the confidence that the government of Kosovo will fulfil all its political, administrative and financial commitments to ensure the freedom of movement to all of Kosovo's communities," said U.N. civil administration chief Patricia Waring.

The United Nations has run Kosovo since 1999, when a 78-day NATO bombing campaign drove out Serb forces accused of killing and expelling civilians in a war with Albanian rebels.

The U.N. mission has started downsizing and handing responsibilities to the Kosovo institutions as it prepares to pull out sometime in 2007. With direct talks under way in Vienna, the West wants a decision on "final status" this year.

The multi-ethnic Kosovo Police Service already shoulders most of the responsibility for securing the bus and train services, once the job of the 17,000-strong NATO-led peace force and 3,000 U.N. police officers stationed in Kosovo.

Serbia opposes independence for its southern province, which many Serbs consider the cradle of their nation. Belgrade says the Albanian majority is neither ready nor willing to secure the rights of the remaining Serbs. Around half the Serb population fled a wave of revenge attacks with the end of the war.

U.N. officials say statistics show ethnically-motivated crime is falling. But reports of Serb buses being stoned still surface, and a grenade attack on a Serb cafe on Saturday, which wounded nine people, has only refuelled the mistrust.

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