'Break Cycle of Violence,' U.N.'s Human Rights Chief Entreats Kosovo


U.N. human rights chief Mary Robinson pleaded Wednesday for Kosovars to break the cycle of violence that has devastated their province and called for urgent steps to guarantee the rights of minority Serbs and Gypsies.

But even as she spoke, two Serbian men lay dead, gunned down in midafternoon when they stopped to change a tire along the road just north of Pristina, the provincial capital. They appeared to be the first reprisal killings of Serbs in three days and represented a setback for NATO forces trying to impose order in Kosovo.

"I really am very worried about the situation of minorities in Kosovo," Robinson told reporters during a one-day visit to assess human rights in the breakaway Serbian province. "I am more worried now than before I came."

A Need for Stronger International Presence

Robinson said there is a need for an even stronger international presence in Kosovo and added that she will relay her views to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in a few days.

Although she said she understands the trauma experienced by ethnic Albanians at the hands of Serbs, she warned: "The people of Kosovo must work together to break the cycle of violence. Albanians, Serbs, Roma [Gypsies] and other communities of Kosovo must set an example of tolerance for people all over the world to follow."

Robinson said that Kosovo stands at a critical juncture that will determine whether it can remain a multiethnic society. Although there are no reliable figures for the Serbian exodus from Kosovo, officials believe that about 80,000 Serbs have left in the past three weeks.

The highway killings Wednesday underscored the very real risks that Serbs remaining in Kosovo face. The two unidentified Serbian civilians were driving a truck containing furniture and other property toward Kosovo's border with the rest of Serbia when they had to stop to change a flat tire, said British Cpl. Martin Green of the Royal Military Police, speaking at the scene Wednesday afternoon.

While the tire was being changed, a gunman or gunmen happened by, shot the two Serbs and then fled, he said. The shooting occurred near Lebane on the route most often used by Serbs fleeing the province.

The victims were to have been part of a convoy of Serbian vehicles leaving Kosovo with an armed North Atlantic Treaty Organization escort, but the men were impatient to get moving and set out on their own, Green said.

In addition to the shooting, there has been a steady stream of Serbs and Gypsies reporting to U.N. peacekeepers that they have been threatened by ethnic Albanians demanding their homes. Typically, someone will come to the door of an apartment and tell the family that they must vacate immediately or they will be harmed, the Serbs and Gypsies report.

Such intimidation appears likely to intensify because tens of thousands more ethnic Albanians are expected to return from exile in the next few weeks and find their own homes destroyed by Serbs.

According to the figures Wednesday from the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, an estimated 477,000 of the ethnic Albanians expelled from Kosovo in March, April, May and June have now returned. But that leaves hundreds of thousands in neighboring countries waiting to come back.

Many Being Harassed Are Elderly People

Many of the Serbs and Gypsies who are being threatened are elderly people "who do not present a threat to anyone," pointed out Dennis McNamara, a senior U.N. humanitarian affairs official in Kosovo.

McNamara said he is meeting with ethnic Albanian community leaders to try to bring an end to the harassment. "Serbs are now leaving Kosovo because they feel insecure," he said. "It is imperative that we do not solve one refugee problem and create another one."

As a key step in the United Nations' effort to bring law and order, a top official swore in the first group of Kosovo judges and prosecutors who will begin hearing the cases of the 221 people who have been detained or charged by international peacekeepers during the past few weeks.

This interim judiciary panel for Kosovo is to hear cases for charges ranging from petty looting to murders and even war crimes.

Evidence of such crimes continued to be found Wednesday as the bodies of scores of massacre victims were discovered in the village of Celina, near the southern city of Prizren.

A spokesman for the German contingent patrolling the sector said troops found the bodies of 78 victims, according to Associated Press. Later, a NATO official speaking on condition of anonymity said peacekeepers had found 119 bodies.

Paul Risley, spokesman for the Hague-based war crimes tribunal, said investigators have found "very clear signs that mass grave sites have been tampered with." He also cited "eyewitness accounts that the bodies of victims have been removed from sites," according to the news service.

Sergio Vieira de Mello, the U.N. interim administrator for Kosovo, described the appointment of the five ethnic Albanians, three Serbs and one ethnic Turk as the first step toward a multiethnic and democratic Kosovo.

Panel Not a Fair Reflection, Judge Says

No sooner had De Mello sworn in the group than he found himself being asked to respond to comments by an Albanian judge that the panel failed to reflect the ethnic balance of Kosovo because Serbs were overrepresented.

Albanians made up 90% of prewar Kosovo's population, and Serbs about 10%--and shrinking, given that nearly half of them have fled Kosovo during the past three weeks alone.

"This is just the first step," De Mello reassured reporters. "It's just the beginning."

Moments later, De Mello was responding to charges by a Serbian member of the audience. The Serb told De Mello that a multiethnic system in Kosovo is possible only if the international community manages to stem the tide of Serbs fleeing Kosovo. De Mello agreed.

"For the public good, your departure would be our failure," he said. "We must prevent that from happening."

The exchanges provided a glimpse into the difficulties facing U.N. officials as they seek to build a judicial system and a government, virtually from scratch, that will satisfy all ethnic communities in Kosovo.

"We are in a difficult situation," said Hans Jorg Strohmeyer, special legal advisor to the U.N., "but we're confident we can move forward."

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