UN moves Kosovo Serbs to safety

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RELIEF ORGANISATIONS in Kosovo have moved hundreds of Serbs out of the province after an alarming increase in attacks on the dwindling ethnic population by local Kosovo Albanians.

The evacuations, which will be seen as a sign of the international community's inability to protect the last remaining Serbs in Kosovo, are strongly opposed by Nato and could herald a split in the international community.

A spokesman for the Nato-led K-For protection force said that it would not organise or assist in the evacuations.

But Dennis Macnamara, spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said the agency had moved out several hundred Serbs. "We don't choose to do that. But do we allow them to remain and be attacked, in some cases killed? Some people we haven't evacuated and who wanted it have lost their lives in the last weeks."

The continuing evacuations by the UN and the International Red Cross are expected to step up as violent attacks on Serbs in the capital Pristina increase

The latest victim, an elderly Serb woman, was beaten to death in her home late on Sunday night or early Monday morning. The murder victim was known to be very vulnerable and international relief organisations had placed her on a list of evacuees. But relief organisations' knowledge of her precarious situation was not enough to ensure her safety.

There are an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 Serbs remaining, mainly elderly or infirm who are unable or unwilling to relocate to Serbia proper. Two other elderly Serbs have also been murdered recently. "There have been repeated attacks on these people. The vast majority of them are innocent, old and infirm but they are being killed. This woman was in line to be evacuated but she was beaten to death," said Ron Redmond, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Major Roland Lavoie, a spokesman for the K-For international peace-keeping force, said yesterday the level of violent crime in Kosovo had declined for three straight days but was still too high."This is an encouraging sign, although criminal activities continue to be much higher than what is acceptable in a free and democratic society." he said.

The increasing violence against the remaining Serbs in Kosovo has highlighted the ambiguity of K-For's position in Kosovo. Despite K-For's protests against evacuations, the Nato-led troops have already helped to evacuate a considerable number of Serbs, including, on one occasion, an entire village.

Such events are widely viewed as a failure to protect Serbs, but the alternative, to leave Serbs unprotected and vulnerable to attack by vengeful Albanians, has apparently already resulted in needless deaths.

Kosovo has been plagued by lawlessness since K-For arrived in mid-June. Revenge attacks on Serbs by members of the ethnic Albanian majority have been common, but officials say score-settling among Albanians and organised crime have also contributed to the high levels of violence, kidnapping and robbery.

Major Lavoie also reported that a patrol of Russian troops had come under fire in eastern Kosovo on Sunday evening. An armoured personnel carrier had responded with automatic fire and a search for the attackers was ongoing. Russian troops are deeply unpopular with many ethnic Albanians, who are suspicious of Russia's close ties to Serbia.

Tensions eased yesterday in the northern Kosovo city of Kosovska Mitrovica after the UN mollified protesting ethnic Albanians by announcing a plan to slowly resettle them in the Serb-controlled part of the community.

Kosovo Liberation Army commanders and other ethnic Albanian officials called off a planned demonstration at a bridge connecting the two bitterly divided ethnic enclaves of this northern mining centre.