UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Serbs would like to return to Kosovo but have been stonewalled in their attempts to recover illegally seized property, a Serbian minister told the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday.
In a speech to the 15-nation council, Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic reiterated Belgrade’s opposition to the independence of Kosovo, which seceded from Serbia in February 2008. Some 60 countries have recognized its independence.
Jeremic cited figures from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), estimating that over 200,000 Kosovo Serbs have yet to return home a decade after a 1998-99 war. He said only around 500 went back to Kosovo last year and 30 during the three months from March to May of this year.
He said Serbs “want to exercise their right of return and we must do everything to bring them back home.” He added that few destroyed houses have been repaired and most remain empty.
“This is not, however, where the biggest problem lies,” Jeremic said. “More than 40,000 claims have been filed by Kosovo Serb IDPs for the return of illegally seized property. And they have not heard back.”
He used the term IDPs — internally displaced persons — to emphasize that he continues to view Kosovo as part of Serbia.
Many Kosovo Serbs have been displaced ever since the war between Serb forces and Albanian guerrillas led to a 1999 NATO bombing campaign against Serbia that forced Belgrade to withdraw its security forces from Kosovo.
Jeremic called for the UNHCR to take over the role of the Kosovo Property Agency (KPA) in processing restitution claims. He said the KPA, administered by the now-sidelined U.N. Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), had effectively “ceased to exist.”
Kosovo’s Foreign Minister Skender Hyseni disputed the UNHCR estimate for displaced Kosovo Serbs and dismissed Jeremic’s figure of 40,000 unresolved property claims as “science fiction.” He also accused Belgrade of encouraging Kosovo Serbs not to return to Kosovo but to remain in Serbia.
Hyseni added that Kosovo was committed to the return of “every single displaced person, every single refugee” and that the KPA would process all outstanding property claims.
U.S. Deputy U.N. Ambassador Rosemary DiCarlo and British envoy Philip Parham urged Pristina to facilitate the return of Kosovo Serbs.
Parham told the council that Britain was “committed to assisting the Kosovo Property Agency in its work to restore rightful title to property for Kosovars of all communities.”
Austrian Ambassador Thomas Mayr-Harting described the rate of return of Kosovo’s Serbs as “disappointingly low.”
Hyseni also reiterated Pristina’s position that it no longer sees any need for UNMIK in Kosovo. A European Union justice and police operation, known as EULEX, has taken over from UNMIK in most parts of the country.
Kosovo is 90 percent Albanian. Many of its 120,000 Serbs refuse to cooperate with Albanian-run institutions.
UNMIK still plays a role in the Serbian parts of Kosovo and in representing Pristina in international bodies where Kosovo has been barred due to Russian and Serbian opposition.
Moscow supports Belgrade in opposing Kosovo independence.
Editing by Anthony Boadle