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Serbia: UN Kosovo Leader Strikes Deal On Serb Prisoner Returns

The UN's chief administrator of Kosovo, Michael Steiner, in a goodwill gesture, is reported to have signed an agreement with the authorities in Belgrade enabling the transfer of Kosovo Serb prisoners out of the province. The deal followed a recent move by Belgrade to transfer the last 146 ethnic Albanian prisoners held in Serbia to Kosovo. But today, the UN in Kosovo warned that very few Serbs will be released anytime soon under the deal. As RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele reports, Steiner also offered a compromise in a bid to placate Serb demands for a ministry for refugee returns.

Prague, 4 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The UN Secretary-General's Special Representative in Kosovo, Michael Steiner, says the records of Serbs currently being held in prisons in Kosovo will be reviewed and qualifying inmates will be transferred to Serbia to serve out their sentences.

Steiner made the announcement yesterday in Belgrade after signing an agreement with the Yugoslav envoy for Kosovo affairs, Nebojsa Covic. Steiner says the transfer is based on the European Convention on the Transfer of Prisoners.

A total of 37 Serbs are believed to be in Kosovo jails. Those convicted of ethnically based crimes would apparently not be transferred. Vladimir Bozevic is the head of the justice department of Belgrade's Coordination Center for Kosovo.

"We've made a study, an analysis, and concluded that those prisoners who are accused of having committed ethnic criminal acts total 14. According to today's agreement, we want to question all [Serb] prisoners in Kosovo who will be transferred very, very soon," Bozevic said.

However, the head of the UN administration's information department in Prishtina, Simon Haselock, told reporters today the review will take some time to complete and only two out of the 37 Serb prisoners have been approved for transfer.

"First of all, the judgment must be final. There must be no outstanding court actions. In other words, if there is an appeal pending [the prisoner must remain in Kosovo]," Haselock said.

Haselock insisted there are no political prisoners in Kosovo.

Last week, Serbia transferred 146 Kosovar Albanian prisoners to Kosovo, the last Albanians from the province believed to be imprisoned in Serbia. They were taken to Dubrava prison near Pec, where 80 were released the next day on the grounds that they had been political prisoners. A total of 32 others are being released this week pending a review of their cases, while 34 will have to serve out their terms.

Another issue Steiner discussed was the Serb absence from the new Kosovo government.

The Kosovo Serb political coalition, Povratak, or "Return," has been offered the post of minister of agriculture in the new provincial government. However, the group has declined joining the government unless a "Ministry of Refugee Returns" is created with a Kosovo Serb at its head.

Steiner said he "cannot create a ministry for returns because the provisional institutions" -- that is the government and its agencies -- "do not have authority in that area." In his words, "it is out of my hands." But he said UN Security Council resolution 1244, which he called "my bible concerning Kosovo," does allow him to create advisory and coordinator posts.

Steiner offered to establish a post of senior adviser to the UN chief administrator for Kosovo on refugee returns and a post of "an inter-ministerial coordinator" on returns who would be on the staff of Kosovo's Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi and have the rank of a minister.

As he described it, "An inter-ministerial [post] within the government, who would have a ministerial rank."

The overwhelming majority of the 800,000 Albanians who fled or were expelled by Serb security forces from Kosovo during the NATO air strikes in 1999 returned within days of the end of hostilities. At the same time some 200,000 Serbs, Montenegrins, Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Gorans, Roma, and other minorities fled the province during the withdrawal of Serb forces in June 1999. Many have gone back and forth several times and there are no accurate numbers available of just how many non-Albanians are currently in the province.

Nevertheless, Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Covic alleged that only 150 Serbs have returned since June 1999, adding that "what we are interested in are results and a change in the numbers of returnees."

"There was talk of a commission for returns and what has been agreed is that we will consider it at a meeting of a senior working group on 9 April. Our talks offer a way for the Povratak coalition to join the Kosovo government."

Steiner once again urged the Serbs to join the one-month-old Kosovo government, saying he is confident that ultimately the Serbs will participate in Kosovo's government and in local elections this autumn.

Covic, according to today's Belgrade dailies, told Steiner that authorities in Belgrade are "ready to cooperate." In his words, "We are not a problematic factor but a problem-solving factor."

In addition to Covic, Steiner also met with Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica and the Serbian Orthodox Patriarch, Archbishop Pavle.

Kostunica told Steiner the main problem in Kosovo is the lack of respect for the human rights of the non-Albanians in the province. And he reiterated that the return of displaced Serbs would best succeed if a ministry, headed by a Serb, is established to oversee the returns.

Steiner told a news conference before leaving the Yugoslav capital that the return of Kosovo Serbs to their homes is a matter for the international community to resolve -- in effect, signaling to Serbs and Albanians not to interfere. For more than two and a half years, Kosovar Albanians have repeatedly interfered with attempts by UN agencies to allow displaced Serbs to return to their homes in Kosovo while Serbs in the province have been equally hostile toward Albanian attempts to reside in Serb-dominated areas, such as North Mitrovica.