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Yugoslavia: British Prime Minister Calls For Ethnic Harmony In Kosovo

  • Lawrence Holland

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, on a visit to Kosovo, today called for harmony among all ethnic groups in the province. RFE/RL correspondent Lawrence Holland files this report from the provincial capital, Pristina.

Pristina, 31 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Britain's Tony Blair is the latest prominent western official to visit Kosovo since the departure of Serb forces and the entry of a NATO-led peacekeeping force in June.

Like German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright before him, he received a warm welcome in the province. A crowd of more than 1,000 cheered him during a brief address in downtown Pristina.

Like Albright earlier in the week, Blair used his public remarks to stress the need for ethnic Albanians, Serbs and other groups to put the recent violence and years of tension behind them:

"We want all people here in Kosovo, whether Albanians, whether Serbs, whatever their background, to live in peace and security and friendship, one with another."

Blair arrived in Kosovo after attending the Balkan Reconstruction Summit in Sarajevo. No representatives from Kosovo were part of that gathering. But Blair held out hope to Kosovars for a future as part of Europe. He then closed his remarks by focusing on the rebuilding of Kosovo and once again on the healing of hostilities:

"I look forward to the day when I come here again, when Pristina is rebuilt, when Kosovo is rebuilt, and when all people here live in justice and partnership and friendship for the future."

Those wishing for reconciliation in Kosovo can see it as a hopeful sign that the crowd responded warmly to his call. But the obstacles facing reconciliation were made apparent just a few hours later and a few hundred meters away from where Blair had spoken when smoke drifted up from the latest home to burn.

Neighbors said it belonged to a Serb family that had recently fled to Belgrade. A KFOR fire company arrived, but it appeared to be too late for them to save much of the house.

The same scene is repeated many times across Kosovo these days. And it is not just Serb homes that burn. A Pristina neighborhood until recently inhabited by Roma is often the site of blazes. And Albanians are still prevented from returning to their homes in some communities where Serb paramilitaries remain effectively in control.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is one of the main bodies pressing efforts for reconciliation in the province. It now has some 150 staff in Kosovo and expects to have around 500 in the near future.

The OSCE, in conjunction with the UNs refugee agency (UNHCR), recently released a report on ethnically based violence in Kosovo. It says that there are some villages where Albanians, Serbs and other ethnic groups continue to live peacefully together. But overall, the situation looks bleak.

There are many reports of violence and intimidation. The report states that the most frequent victims are those suspected of involvement in Serb atrocities or those simply accused of having passively supported Serbian authorities.

Our correspondent spoke in Pristina with the spokeswoman for the OSCE's Kosovo mission, Urdur Gunnarsdottir. She made clear that the OSCE and the international community do not want to see a Kosovo partitioned between different groups:

"We want a multi-ethnic society and that does not mean a society where minorities are assembled in a few places and totally isolated."

Gunnarsdottir was asked, given what has happened in Kosovo, whether the possibility of reconciliation between Albanians and Serbs is hopeless.

"This is not hopeless. It is very, very difficult. But we do hope that time is going to work with us. And we know there are a lot of reasonable people here. There are a lot of people who have had enough of this fighting and this violence and they just want peace for themselves and their families. They just want to be able to work and live in peace. And we hope that this attitude and [the passage of] time [are] going to work with us so we will be able to build the society that we have pledged to do. This multi-ethnic, democratic society."

One of the challenges facing the task of reconciliation is the rebuilding of basic security in Kosovo. The OSCE/UNHCR report stated that KFOR troops are not able to be everywhere they are needed. Meanwhile, the UN has been criticized for acting too slowly to assemble a police force.

Many observers in Pristina are saying that until an adequate number of security forces are deployed, ethnically motivated acts of violence are likely to continue. If they do, any genuine reconciliation in Kosovo will likely be hard to attain.