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Kosovo: Missing Persons Issue Looms Large

A UN Security Council mission back from Kosovo says the problem of missing persons is one of the main obstacles to reconciliation between Serbs and Albanians. And despite lingering differences over the visit of two council members to Belgrade, the head of the mission is hopeful the Kosovo trip will provide a badly needed boost to the UN mission there. RFE/RL's UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

United Nations, 2 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The trip by eight UN Security Council representatives to Kosovo was intended to provide insight into the challenges facing one of the United Nations' most ambitious operations. A report delivered yesterday (Monday) by the council team fresh back from Kosovo indicates that the council did gain a new appreciation for the work of the UN Mission in Kosovo, known as UNMIK. But the trip also showcased a fundamental difference among some council members concerning how to treat Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. The Russian and Chinese representatives on the mission -- Russia's UN ambassador Sergei Lavrov and China's deputy ambassador Shen Guofang -- met with Milosevic in Belgrade before the mission started last Thursday (April 27). They were representing their nations, which are supportive of Yugoslavia in the council, but several of their council colleagues said the visit was inappropriate.

Milosevic has been indicted by the UN war crimes tribunal for Yugoslavia as a war criminal. UN resolutions call for all countries to cooperate with the tribunal. Ambassador Robert Fowler of Canada, last month's council president, expressed disappointment on Friday about the meeting with Milosevic. He was joined yesterday by U.S. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and by the leader of the council mission to Kosovo, Ambassador Anwarul Chowdhury of Bangladesh.

But Chinese diplomat Shen defended the visit. He told reporters yesterday it is necessary to engage Yugoslavia in order to help with the administration of Kosovo as laid out in Security Council resolution 1244, [which set up UNMIK]:

"It is very necessary for us to send a message to the government of Yugoslavia and in my view in order to implement Resolution 1244 we have to involve the government of Yugoslavia." Ambassador Chowdhury called the visit with Milosevic "regrettable." But he said the Russian and Chinese representatives fully participated in the council mission.

Russia and China were the only permanent council members on the Kosovo mission. Representatives from the other permanent members -- the U.S., Britain and France -- are taking part in a visit to the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo this week to assess conditions for UN peacekeeping operations there. In a news conference on Monday, Chowdhury said the Kosovo mission found three main problem areas. They involve cases of thousands of missing persons and detainees, tens of thousands of displaced people and refugees who have not been able to return to Kosovo, and the ongoing ethnic violence in the province. Chowdhury said that in virtually all meetings with Kosovo residents, the mission was faced with pleas about missing relatives and loved ones.

"It's a great humanitarian issue which needs our attention. The council cannot maintain credibility unless we address this issue. And I'm saying [this] about all missing persons, irrespective of ethnicity. This issue needs our attention." The mission's report says there is strong support for the appointment of a special UN envoy for missing persons in Kosovo. The UN Secretary-General recently appointed a similar representative to look into cases of missing Kuwaitis in Iraq, and Chowdhury says a missing persons envoy in Kosovo could function in the same way. The U.S.'s Holbrooke, speaking outside the council chamber yesterday, endorsed the idea of a missing persons envoy:

"I think the missing persons issue is of enormous importance in Kosovo. With thousands of people missing in a small population base, almost every family in Kosovo is directly affected by it. The emotions on this issue run as deep as any I've experienced in the Balkans in the last six years. "