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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 March 2007, 14:18 GMT
UN chief reassures Kosovo Serbs
By Patrick Jackson
BBC News, Pristina

Swedish K-For soldier guards the historic Serb church in Gracanica, near Pristina
K-For soldiers continue to guard Serb sites and patrol enclaves
Serbs should not be afraid to live in Kosovo after the United Nations hands over power, the head of the UN mission (Unmik), Joachim Ruecker, has said.

"There is absolutely no reason for them to be concerned or to leave," the German diplomat told the BBC News website at his office in Pristina.

Nato and EU officials are meeting in Germany to discuss future policing for the Albanian-majority territory.

A decision on granting supervised independence is due within months.

Several Serb students from Kosovo's enclaves told the BBC News website in Kosovska Mitrovica this week that their families were preparing to leave their homes and move to central Serbia in the event of Kosovo independence.

But Mr Ruecker said the status proposal would "make absolutely sure that all the minorities, including the Kosovo Serbs, are not only going to be protected but are going to have a good future in Kosovo".

In the absence of a recent census, ethnic Serbs are believed to make up less than 10% of the population of Kosovo, which has been under international control since 1999, while legally remaining a province of Serbia.

Some 800,000 ethnic Albanians fled their homes in 1999 amid a violent Serb crackdown. Nato launched a bombing campaign to stop the Serb assaults.

'Partition no solution'

As for the thousands of Serbs and other non-Albanians driven from their homes during the peaks of ethnic violence in 1999 and 2004, the head of Unmik pointed to the work done by his body and the new Kosovo authorities to rebuild razed houses and prepare for the return.

Joachim Ruecker in his Unmik office in Pristina
Joachim Ruecker has led Unmik since September 2006

"It is a very good thing that these houses were reconstructed," he said.

"People can come back now."

If people were not coming back, he added, it might be "because of political obstacles", rather than the specific situation on the ground. He predicted more returns once there was certainty about final status.

Asked if Serbs had not already de facto partitioned Kosovo along the River Ibar, which physically divides northern Mitrovica and its mainly ethnic Serb hinterland from the rest of Kosovo, Unmik's administrator said partition was unacceptable.

"I would not say that separation or mono-ethnicity is the solution - the contrary is true," he said.

"I think integration, co-existence, living together, multi-ethnicity is the future and I think the international community has made very clear that partition is not a solution for Kosovo's future."

Police talks

Nato contributes the lion's share of troops to K-For - the 16,000-strong international military force deployed in Kosovo - and intends to maintain its strength on the ground for the near future.

Indian (left) and German UN policemen in Mitrovica
UN police officers help patrol Mitrovica's central bridge

The EU is due to send hundreds of police officers to replace the UN force currently deployed.

Both it and Nato want UN assurances that the Unmik force will stay on the ground until the new EU force is ready, Jean-Paul Perruche, outgoing director-general of the EU Military Staff, told journalists this week.

Nato Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said earlier that it was important to avoid security "gaps".

"Because if there were gaps, that would immediately have consequences for K-For," he added.

The talks in Wiesbaden are due to go on for two days.

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