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Kosovo: Unhcr Acknowledges Plan For Serb Evacuation

Pristina, 8 June - The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has acknowledged the existence of a contingency plan to evacuate 70,000 Serbs from the southern Kosovo province if the region became independent as expected this year. In an interview with Belgrade daily Vecernje novosti, Sandra Mitchell, an official of the UN administration in Kosovo (UNMIK), played down the significance of the plan, saying: "Such plans are prepared everywhere where political processes with possible incidents are taking place, which may influence the displacement of people."

"The UNHCR plan for the acceptance of some 70,000 refugees from Kosovo is nothing unusual, but an obligation of the organisation," said Mitchell. But she added she was convinced the exodus would not take place should the international community cede to ethnic Albanian majority demands for Kosovo's independence. Mitchell said that several thousand Serbs have shown interest in returning to Kosovo, after some 250,000 fled the province when it was put under UN control in 1999.

"Unfortunately, the number of returnees of Serb and other non-Albanian communities is much smaller than expected. According to UNHCR data, about 14,500 people have returned, of which 40 percent are Serbs, which is still a very small number," Mitchell said.

UNMIK this week announced it was sending some 500 new international peackeepers to Kosovo to stem the rise in inter-ethnic incidents that has occurred as Kosovo appears to be moving closer towards independence. UNMIK said that the reinforcements would be stationed in northern Kosovo, populated mostly by Serbs, raising speculations in Belgrade press that the purpose was actually to prevent the partitioning of Kosovo if it became independent.

Belgrade opposes Kosovo's independence, favouring instead broad autonomy for the province's 1.7 million ethnic Albanians. However, ethnic Albanian leaders have said they will settle for nothing short of independence. UNMIK chief Soren Jessen Petersen is expected on 20 June to deliver a report to the UN Security Council on the situation in the province. Petersen's term expires at the end of June and Pristina media reported on Thursday that he would leave the post, which would temporarily be taken over by his deputy, American general Steven Shuck.

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