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Kosovo Urged To Rehouse Roma, Away From Lead Mine

Romany refugees at the Mitrovica camp in April
MITROVICA, Kosovo (Reuters) -- A human rights group has urged Kosovar authorities to resettle some 700 Roma living near the country's largest lead and zinc mine, saying pollution from it was stunting some children's growth.

Some 8,000 Roma whose houses were destroyed during the 1998-99 Kosovo war found temporary refuge in Cesmin Lug Camp outside Trepca mine, in the outskirts of the ethnically divided town of Mitrovica.

Most have left in search of jobs and a brighter future, but 700 remain near a vast complex of lead, zinc, and silver mining that until the 1990s was a font of Yugoslav export revenue and employed 23,000 people.

In a report, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said that blood samples taken from children living in the camp showed "unacceptably high lead levels."

"Excessive lead levels in the human body can cause damage to the nervous and reproductive systems and kidney failure. Very high lead levels lead to coma and death," the report said.

"Children are especially badly affected, with some suffering from stunted physical and mental growth."

In the past two years around 70 Romany families were resettled from camps and moved to new houses built in the Albanian-dominated part of Mitrovica with money provided by Kosovar authorities and international donors.

"We have done a lot in the past year," said Ismail Smakiqi, deputy mayor in the Albanian part of Mitrovica. "We are just waiting for the donors to help us and build more houses."

Kosovo is still recovering from the 1998-99 war with Yugoslavia, in which NATO intervened in its support with several months of bombing raids to halt the killing of ethnic Albanian civilians. Kosovo's 2 million-strong Albanian majority declared independence from Serbia last year.

The global financial crisis and constant tensions between ethnic Albanians and Serbs have clouded the climate for investment in the economy, which officials say needs double-digit growth to make inroads into Kosovo's 45 percent unemployment rate.

Latif Masurica and his five children are among those Roma still living near the Trepca mine in the camp set up by the United Nations administration after NATO bombing ended.

"Everyone asks me how do I see the future? I don't see a future," he said.