SMEDEREVO, Yugoslavia (Reuters) - The United Nations' top refugee official said on Wednesday her organization could not promote the return of Serbs to Kosovo until security there improved.
The comments by Sadako Ogata as she visited Serbia marked the latest acknowledgement from the international community that its goal of keeping Kosovo multi-ethnic has proved much harder than expected.
''The security situation is one in which we cannot promote returns right now,'' the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees told a news conference in Belgrade.
Ogata earlier visited former workers' barracks outside the industrial town of Smederevo near the capital which have been home to hundreds of refugees since 1992 and toured another refugee center in the central Serbian town of Kragujevac.
Ogata has also visited refugee centers in Croatia and Bosnia in the past few days.
Serbia has one of the world's biggest refugee populations, with well over half a million people displaced by conflicts in Croatia, Bosnia and now Kosovo. Many of them live in very basic conditions and depend entirely on foreign humanitarian aid.
The depth of grief and hatred generated by the conflicts, which the West says were stirred by Slobodan Milosevic, first as Serbian, then as Yugoslav president, means few have been able to go home, even years after peace treaties have been signed.
Refugee officials hope the recent change of government in Croatia after the death of nationalist leader Franjo Tudjman in January will make the return of Serbs to Croatia more likely.
Kosovo Returns Unlikely For Now
But in Kosovo, international peacekeepers have been unable to prevent continuing fierce attacks on Serbs by separatist Kosovo Albanians out to avenge years of Serb repression, making returns there a distant prospect.
Ogata spoke to refugees from Kosovo and Croatia at the barracks, where each family is crammed into one room.
''I think the common aspiration that they have expressed is one to go back. With those who came from Croatia...they may be closer to the possibility of returning. Those who came from Kosovo, I think right now, even if they want to go back, they may have to see how the situation evolves,'' she said.
''There are still people fleeing from there.''
For several months after Serbs and other minorities began leaving Kosovo in June, international officials insisted they were starting to see a turn in the tide.
Dennis McNamara, Ogata's special envoy for the Balkans, said a few people were going back. But he also noted others were leaving and he urged NATO-led KFOR peacekeepers and the U.N. civilian mission in Kosovo to work harder on security.
''We would certainly welcome more vigorous international action and support, including for the protection of non-Albanian populations and especially Serbs,'' he told reporters.
The UNHCR is now registering displaced people from Kosovo to establish the true figure. The Yugoslav Red Cross has registered 204,000 while the government says the total is 350,000.
Ogata said some of those from Kosovo told her they thought they could live again with the province's Albanian majority.
''They feel that they can again once the situation improves.''
Graffiti on the camp wall explained the will to return.
''Welcome to the ghetto,'' it said.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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