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UNHCR pushes Serb return to Croatia, wary on Kosovo

BELGRADE, Jun 23, 2000 -- (Reuters) The United Nations refugee agency said on Thursday it had launched a new campaign to encourage Serb refugees to return to Croatia.

The agency also said it was encouraged by returns in Bosnia but that Kosovo remained too volatile for many Serbs to try to go home.

UNHCR spokeswoman Maki Shinohara said the agency was conducting a media campaign with the authorities in Yugoslavia, which has Europe's biggest refugee population of some 700,000, to persuade Serbs who fled Croatia during the conflicts of the 1990s that the time was right to return.

"This new push is in response to changes being made in Croatia, in particular to changes in clearance procedure," Shinohara told a news conference.

The Croatian authorities had agreed to clear applications within 30 days and had dropped a key condition.

"They have agreed to allow the return not only of those who have host families but also if people are willing to stay in temporary accommodation centers," Shinohara said, adding that buildings would be adapted for this using European Union aid.

So far only around 10,700 of an estimated 270,000 Serbs displaced from Croatia in and after the conflicts that broke out over the collapse of Socialist Yugoslavia have returned, half of them assisted by the UNHCR and half on their own, she said.

Croatia's change of approach follows the election at the start of this year of a new, pro-Western government following the death of veteran nationalist leader Franjo Tudjman.

BOSNIA RETURNS TRIPLE

Shinohara said nearly 12,000 people had returned home in Bosnia in the period from January to April, more than three times last year's figure.

She said the UNHCR had registered 210,000 Serbs and other minorities displaced from Kosovo, of whom 180,000 were in Serbia and 31,000 in Montenegro - Serbia's smaller partner in the Yugoslav federation.

People were going in and out of Kosovo on buses organized by the UNHCR but they appeared to be only visiting, she said.

"We are seeing many more Serb families putting up their houses for sale...(but) we don't really see there are significant outflows or inflows at this time," she said.

Some of the international organizations that have run Kosovo since Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic withdrew his forces from the majority Albanian province last year after 11 weeks of NATO air strikes are anxious to convince Serbs who fled to return.

Local Kosovo Serb leaders also want to see Serbs return, and have come up with competing plans. But Albanian leaders in Kosovo say passions are still run too high after the campaign of terror conducted by Serb forces during the air strikes.

The UNHCR, concerned the returns could spark more violence, has said security is not good enough in the province, where Serbs and other minorities have to be guarded by NATO-led troops and UN police against attack by Albanian extremists.

"We will assist the people who want to go home in small numbers but not encourage returns on a mass scale because the situation is extremely volatile in those areas," Shinohara said.

Milosevic's ruling Socialist Party made clear at a news conference on Thursday it was only interested in a mass return.

"The Socialist Party of Serbia believes that everyone exiled from Kosovo must return, more than 300,000 people, not just 10,000," senior party official Nikola Saniovic said.



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