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UNHCR appeals for calm in Kosovo, denounces violence

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UNHCR appeals for calm in Kosovo, denounces violence

18 March 2004

18 March 2004

GENEVA - The United Nations High Commissioner for refugees on Thursday appealed to Serbia and Montenegro's ethnic communities to refrain from further violence after clashes between Serbs and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo left more that 20 people dead.

"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. Lubbers also urged all ethnic groups to respect places of worship as well as United Nations property.

The clashes erupted on Wednesday in the northern Kosovo town of Mitrovica and later spread to other Kosovo areas and to Serbia proper with angry crowds setting Serbia's mosques and Kosovo's churches on fire and stoning UN buildings and vehicles. Belgrade's only mosque, which was never attacked even at the height of the Balkan wars of the 1990s, was also set on fire.

UNHCR's Assistant High Commissioner, Kamel Morjane, was in Belgrade on Thursday on a previously planned mission. Morjane condemned the violence in Kosovo and said the agency supported attempts to ease tensions, including by the UN administration. He said UNHCR hoped population displacement would be prevented, but the situation needed to be carefully monitored. UNHCR was prepared to respond if necessary, he added.

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.

The UN refugee agency has run a series of confidence-building projects in Kosovo since 1999 when most of ethnic Serbs fled the province, following the withdrawal of Serbian forces from Kosovo. An estimated 220,000 people left Kosovo for Serbia proper and Montenegro.

UNHCR efforts have focused on improving inter-ethnic relations to enable at least some of Kosovo Serbs to return to their homes. A limited number of them have trickled back, as the situation slowly improved.