News Stories, 18 March 2004
GENEVA, March 18 (UNHCR) – The UN refugee agency has condemned Wednesday's clashes in Kosovo, and appealed to Serbia and Montenegro's ethnic communities to refrain from further violence that could undo years of reconciliation efforts.
More than 20 people were killed in clashes that broke out on Wednesday between ethnic Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo. The violence started in the northern Kosovo town of Mitrovica, and spread to Serbia proper. Angry crowds set fire to Kosovo's churches and Serbia's mosques, including Belgrade's only mosque that had been spared even at the height of the Balkan wars of the 1990s. They also stoned UN buildings and vehicles.
"The violence of the past 24 hours threatens to undo years of international efforts to reconcile Serbia and Montenegro's ethnic communities," said High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers on Thursday. He also urged all ethnic groups to respect places of worship as well as UN property.
UNHCR's Assistant High Commissioner, Kamel Morjane, currently on a week-long mission to the Balkans, was in Belgrade on Thursday. He condemned the violence in Kosovo and said the refugee agency supported attempts to ease tensions, including by the UN administration. He expressed hoped that population displacement could be prevented, adding that UNHCR was monitoring the situation closely and was prepared to respond if necessary.
The explosive deterioration of events underlines the fragile character of the situation in Kosovo. In some areas of Kosovo, minority members had to be escorted to safety on Thursday by the NATO-led Kosovo Force.
An estimated 220,000 ethnic Serbs fled Kosovo for Serbia and Montenegro when Serbian forces pulled out of Kosovo in 1999. Since then, UNHCR has run a series of confidence-building measures to improve inter-ethnic relations and help some Serbs go home to Kosovo. Small numbers have returned as the situation slowly improved.