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UN: Refugee Returns Up Sharply In Bosnia This Year

The United Nations' refugee agency reports that the number of minorities returning to their homes in Bosnia so far this year is more than 15,000, three times the rate of last year's returns. The report is a bright spot amid continuing concern over political feuding by leaders of the three ethnic groups and fears that aid money will soon start drying up. UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

United Nations, 8 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says that the total number of minority returns to Bosnia through the end of May was about 15,600. That's about three times the rate of minority returns during the same period last year.

UNHCR spokesman Kris Janowski told reporters in Geneva on Friday that a number of factors appear to be contributing to the rise in Serbs, Muslims and Croats taking up residence in communities where they are the minority. He said the new figures indicate sudden improvement in an area of slow progress, more than five years after the signing of the Dayton peace accords. "Finally something has moved on minority returns. The minority returns are still one of the least implemented parts, if not the least implemented part, of the Dayton peace agreement, so it's good that something is moving there," he said.

Janowski said the arrest of indicted war criminals such as Momcilo Krajisnik -- at one time the Bosnian Serb member of the collective presidency -- was restoring confidence in the returning minorities. He also credited the recent political change in Croatia with contributing to reconciliation, saying it had removed much of the support for Croat hard-liners in Herzegovina.

UN officials say there are about 800,000 internally displaced Bosnians and 300,000 refugees.

Janowski said the sharp increase in returning minorities is intensifying demand for rebuilt homes, since many properties were destroyed during the Bosnian war. He said the refugee agency estimates that about 11,000 houses need to be urgently rebuilt to accommodate people who have returned during 1999 and thus far in 2000. More people are expected to be returning over the summer months.

Currently, nearly 3,600 homes are in the process of being rebuilt, the refugee agency says, at a cost of about 10,000 dollars each. Janowski says failure to accommodate the returning minorities could hurt the rate of returns. "UNHCR is concerned that the lack of international funds for reconstruction of houses and infrastructure may jeopardize the increased momentum on returns," he says.

The UNHCR says there has been some progress in returning original owners to their homes. It says a strengthened implementation of property laws in urban areas across Bosnia has led to about 5,000 properties being vacated by illegal occupants.

But aid money for Bosnian reconstruction hit a challenge on Friday with a report by the investigatory arm of the U.S. Congress. The report by the General Accounting Office said crime and corruption are pervasive in Bosnia, threatening the reform goals of the Dayton accords. It says the hundreds of millions of dollars given by international donors has not been subject to audit, and at least $1.3 million of that amount have been lost because of corruption and fraud.

Other international agencies active in both Bosnia and Kosovo have warned international aid money is helping to fuel organized crime because it is falling into the hands of corrupt officials.

The report released Friday by the General Accounting Office recommends that the U.S. government reassesses its financial assistance programs for Bosnia. It said the government should consider suspending aid if local authorities fail to take steps to control crime, corruption and smuggling.

The U.S. State Department responded to the report by saying the U.S. government has made corruption and fraud two priority areas in its attempts to normalize conditions in Bosnia. The State Department said it saw no need to reassess U.S. programs in Bosnia. U.S. President Bill Clinton has asked Congress to provide more than 100 million dollars for assistance to Bosnia in 2001.