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Yugoslavia: Officials See Progress In Restoring Normalcy To Life In Kosovo

The two top international officials in Kosovo held a news conference over the weekend to offer their views on conditions in the province six weeks after the entry of a NATO-led peacekeeping force. RFE/RL correspondent Lawrence Holland reports from the provincial capital Pristina that they stressed progress has been made in rebuilding a normal life for Kosovar civilians. But they both acknowledged that the recent killing of 14 Serb civilians represents a significant setback.

Pristina, 26 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The killing of 14 Serb farmers late last week in Kosovo is a clear preoccupation for both NATO and UN officials in Kosovo. They are quick to say that great efforts are underway to find those guilty.

The lead official in the UN administration in Kosovo, Frenchman Bernard Kouchner, told reporters in Pristina yesterday that the murder of the Serbs near Gracko late Friday had cast a shadow over the international community's efforts in the province:

"Well, you can imagine that when I originally proposed holding this press conference together with [KFOR commander] Mike Jackson, none of us could have known that we would be confronted by a new mass murder."

Yugoslav officials have seized on the incident, arguing that it is proof that NATO troops are not able to protect Serbs in Kosovo following the withdrawal of Serb forces.

Kouchner acknowledged that life for the some 100,000 Serbs still in the province is very difficult. He said many do not leave their homes for fear of attack by ethnic Albanians angered over their own earlier mistreatment by Serb security forces and paramilitaries.

British General Jackson, the commander of the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo (KFOR), told the press conference that KFOR will do everything it can to protect all minorities in the province.

Jackson said KFOR had agreed to provide an escort last Saturday so that the 14 Serbs would be able to harvest hay in the field near Gracko, some 25 kms south of Pristina. He said he did not know why the farmers chose instead to work the field on Friday. Thirteen were found shot dead in a small circle. The fourteenth was found dead on a harvester.

Jackson refused to say who he suspects is guilty of the murders. Both he and Kouchner expressed determination that those responsible will be found and will be brought to justice.

Jackson said that forensics experts from the international war crimes tribunal are assisting in the investigation. British military investigators are taking the lead. The killings occurred in the sector of Kosovo controlled by British KFOR troops.

Jackson said that as a result of the killings near Gracko, changes had been made in the way NATO troops are doing their jobs. He said that more checkpoints can be expected. But Jackson also said that KFOR must find a proper balance between providing adequate security while not excessively interfering in the daily lives of civilians.

Both Jackson and Kouchner stressed that all Kosovars must assist international officials in preventing acts of violence and in the investigation of those that may occur. Kouchner said:

"The world intervened in [Kosovo in] a powerful and unprecedented way to end the suffering, injustice, and killing. But the world did not intervene to make Kosovo safe for revenge."

Despite the deaths near Gracko, both Kouchner and Jackson stressed that considerable progress has been made in Kosovo since KFOR forces arrived in mid-June. General Jackson said:

"There have been notable and dramatic changes. The forces of Yugoslavia left as required. The [Kosovo Liberation Army] have given a solemn and voluntary undertaking to demilitarize, and so far they have kept to that undertaking. But perhaps most significant of all [is that] nearly three-quarters of a million people have returned to Kosovo to rebuild their homes and their lives."

Kouchner said that this week will see several important steps toward rebuilding normal life in Kosovo. On Wednesday, broadcasts are due to resume from Pristina television. Also this week, one customs post will be opened on the border with Albania and two on the Macedonian border. And Kouchner said efforts on reopening schools and establishing a civilian police force are also moving forward.

Kouchner stressed that the holding of elections is critical to restoring normal life for the people of Kosovo. But he did not commit to any timetable.

"According to my humble opinion, we must be quick. That is not to say three months, six months, nine months, one year, I don't know. But it must be quick."

Kouchner said that the process of holding elections will be helped by the fact that Kosovars have conducted elections for a shadow government in recent years and are therefore familiar with voting. But he said that free media needs to be established and proper voting lists must be compiled before elections can be held.