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Thursday, June 10, 1999 Published at 19:07 GMT 20:07 UK

World: Europe

Serb civilians may flee Kosovo

Serbian leaders in Pristina are urging people to stay

Fears are growing that Kosovo may be gripped by a second refugee exodus as Serb civilians flee the province as the Yugoslav military pulls out.

Kosovo: Special Report
As Nato prepared to send in its international peacekeeping force, Serb politicians and leaders urged Serb civilians not to flee the province as the refugees return.

The fears came as reports emerged from refugee camps that some ethnic Albanians and members of the Kosovo Liberation Army were threatening revenge against those they believed had been complicit in atrocities.

Western reporters who have gained access to the province have also reported speaking to Serb civilians who were preparing to flee.

Click here to see a map of Serbs in Kosovo

Minority population

Before the conflict began the Serb community was thought to comprise around 200,000 - 10% of the province's population.

[ image: Kosovo's Serbs will feel insecure when Serbian forces depart]
Kosovo's Serbs will feel insecure when Serbian forces depart
Nebojsa Covic, president of the opposition Democratic Alternative urged the remaining Serb population to stay in Kosovo, describing it as the cradle of Serbian culture.

In a letter to the spiritual leader of Kosovo's Serbs and the head of the Kosovo Serb resistance movement, he said: "We must believe the peace will not bring suffering worse than war and that it will protect everything you have so bravely and persistently fought for.

"You have always been the last line of the country's defence on its ancient soil. And only as long as you and our sanctuaries are still there Kosovo, there will be Serbia."

The BBC's Paul Wood in Kosovo: "K-for may not be able to prevent Serbs leaving"
Vladan Batic, co-ordinator of Alliance for Change, said he had expressed concern to diplomats in Belgrade.

"The UN, Nato, the European Union and Russia should find a formula to guarantee safety and security for Kosovo Serbs," he said in a statement.

"Otherwise the whole international community will be defeated because one exodus cannot be solved with another.

Friends and neighbours

Tens of thousands of Kosovo Serbs left their homes last year as fighting between Serb forces and the KLA worsened.

[ image: Serbs fear possible attacks by KLA guerrillas]
Serbs fear possible attacks by KLA guerrillas
Many more fled to Serbia following the start of Nato bombing, leaving an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 in the province.

The United Nation's refugee agency has reported that it believes that there is a "strong possibility" of a Serb exodus similar to when the Krajina Serbs left en masse following defeat by Croatia in 1995.

But K-For's commander Lieutenant General Sir Mike Jackson has ordered his forces to deal with both Yugoslav and KLA units in an "even-handed" manner, underlining that all civilians must be protected.

Historic sites

Serb populations are concentrated to the north around Ljeposavic and Mitrovica, in Pristina and Prizren, on the eastern border and in a small pocket near Prizren.

But critically, the province has hundreds of sites which Serbs consider to be so culturally or historically important that they lie at the heart of their national identity.

These include the battlefield of Kosovo Polje - the site of their 1389 defeat at the hands of the advancing Ottoman Turks - and religious sites in Pec, Gracanica and Decani, the location of Serbia's largest monastic church.

Speaking to BBC World, Pleurat Sejdiu, London spokesman for the KLA said: "We signed in Rambouillet that we would respect the human rights of all civilians. The Serb civilians are victims of Milosevic too."

But he added: "Many people know that their neighbours have participated in these massacres and there will be retaliations.

"They know who the people are."

Map depicts some of the key Serb population centres and areas of cultural importance.
[ image:  ]

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