Kosovo: arrivals from southern Serbia rising
The number of ethnic Albanians leaving their homes in southern Serbia climbed sharply yesterday, when 626 people registered at UNHCR's field office in the eastern Kosovo town of Gnjilane. The new arrivals said they fled because of continuing tensions in southern Serbia, where an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 ethnic Albanians remain in areas around the towns of Presevo, Bujanovac and Mevedja, near the provincial border with Kosovo.
From January 26 through yesterday, a total of 1,658 ethnic Albanians from southern Serbia have registered as internally displaced with UNHCR in Gnjilane. But UNHCR believes the number could be much higher because many of the IDPs do not register. Many are believed to head to other parts of Kosovo, including Pristina, in search of shelter and employment. Since last summer, at least 6,000 ethnic Albanians are believed to have left southern Serbia - and that is a conservative estimate.
The latest arrivals reported they fled following firefights around the village of Dobrocin, where two Albanian woodcutters were killed on Jan. 26. More shooting incidents were reported Friday and over the weekend, they said.
On Sunday, 76 new arrivals registered in Gnjilane and reported that many more people would follow as soon as they felt it safe to do so. Yesterday, 626 registered.
There have been increasing reports of instability along the provincial border in recent weeks, including accounts from displaced Albanians of harassment and intimidation by Serb police and military in southern Serbia. At the same time, there are reports of an armed Albanian splinter group operating in the region.
In another development, UNHCR on Friday resumed operation of its bus route in the Gnjilane area and will resume today in Pristina. Altogether, we operated eight routes around Kosovo aimed at allowing freedom of movement for all ethnic groups. The bus operation was suspended Feb. 2 following a rocket attack on a vehicle near Mitrovica that killed two Serbs and wounded three others.