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Kosovo and Serbian politicians agree on refugee return

PRISTINA, Serbia-Kosovo and Serbian officials and the U.N.'s top official in the province signed an agreement on Tuesday pledging to create safe and fair conditions for the return to Kosovo of tens of thousands of Serb refugees and other minorities displaced by the 1999 war. The agreement commits the sides to securing conditions for the voluntary return of those who fled the conflict in Kosovo, such as physical and material security, freedom of movement, return of property, reconstruction of burned homes and equal employment opportunities, according to a copy obtained by The Associated Press before the signing ceremony. The signing is a rare indication of agreement between Serbia and Kosovo and comes at a sensitive time for the province.

On Monday, local Serbian officials in the northern part of Kosovo said they would sever ties with provincial institutions that are dominated by the ethnic Albanian majority, following a number of incidents they blame on ethnic Albanians. A Kosovo Serb hardline leader, Marko Jaksic, in a statement to The Associated Press, insisted Tuesday the boycott was not designed by the Serbian government in Belgrade, but was a decision taken by the local Serb leaders in the northern part of the province.

Jaksic also suggested possible creation of Serb vigilante groups to guard Serb-populated villages, if attacks continue against the minority group, a move similar to those of Serb communities in Croatia when Yugoslavia began to unravel in the early 1990s. "This is our autonomous decision, a result of a disastrous security situation over the past seven years," since NATO bombing forced Serbia to hand over control of Kosovo to the U.N. mission, he said. At the end of the Kosovo war, more than 200,000 Serbs and other minorities streamed out of Kosovo, fearing revenge attacks after a NATO air war ended a Serb crackdown on the province's independence-seeking ethnic Albanians. So far, international and government-led efforts to return Serb refugees and those displaced within the province have produced little result, which increases fears of territorial division along ethnic lines.

U.N. officials running Kosovo as its future status is negotiated have made the refugees' return a priority, requiring fair treatment of the Serb minority a condition of the ethnic Albanian quest for independence. The protocol, aimed at increasing the numbers of returning refugees, was signed by top U.N. administrator Soren Jessen-Petersen, a Kosovo government representative leading talks on the returns, and a Serb government official participating in the return efforts, the U.N. said.

The signing of the agreement has been pending for nearly a year as the two former foes disagreed over the content. The document provides for the return of all displaced people to their homes, but it also allows them to go to other places of their choice in the province. Nearly seven years after the end of the war, the ethnic groups remain divided, with Kosovo Serbs mainly living in isolated enclaves fearing attacks by ethnic Albanians. Talks to determine Kosovo's future are under way in Austria. Western envoys hope that some form of solution will be found by the end of 2006, which should primarily ensure the well-being of minorities, particularly Serbs.

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