Talks to resume in Belgrade on Kosovo's missing
February 23, 2005

By Shaban Buza

PRISTINA, Serbia and Montenegro, Feb 22 (Reuters) - Serbs and Albanians have agreed to revive their dialogue next month with talks on the fate of more than 3,000 people still missing nearly six years after the Kosovo war.

``Yes, it's on March 10 in Belgrade,'' Kosovo Albanian Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj said on Tuesday.

The news was likely to be welcomed by major powers dealing with Kosovo's future and concerned that the two sides had not talked for a year.

Kosovo's U.N. governor Soren Jessen-Petersen deplored the impasse during a visit to Belgrade last month, saying the fate of the missing was ``a burning humanitarian issue.''

Jessen-Petersen said Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica had refused at the time to set early date. But a U.N. spokesman told Reuters the mood had changed.

``He was quite disappointed by this meeting but contacts continued and they decided to resume dialogue on this humanitarian issue,'' Remi Dourlot said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross is expected to chair the ``meeting of experts'' -- without political leaders.

The United Nations says direct dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina is crucial if the situation in Kosovo is to improve sufficiently for full negotiations on whether Kosovo's Albanian majority gets the independence it demands from Serbia.


Those negotiations could begin in September or October, Jessen-Petersen said in Brussels on Monday -- naming a likely timeframe for the talks for the first time.

But it depended on Kosovo making progress on eight U.N.-set standards of democracy and minority rights, he stressed.

Western-brokered talks on so-called ``technical issues'' such as energy and missing persons were launched in Vienna in October 2003, the first such dialogue since the 1998-99 war.

But Belgrade pulled out six months later after two days of Albanian riots against Kosovo Serbs and other minorities killed 19 people and drove 4,000 from their homes.

Relations between Belgrade and Kosovo's U.N. administration hit a new low when Haradinaj, a former guerrilla leader, was elected prime minister in December. Serbia says he is a terrorist and has ruled out talks with his government.

But Serbian President Boris Tadic toured Serb enclaves in Kosovo for two days last week without stoking major protests.

The United Nations took control of the province in 1999 after 11 weeks of NATO bombing to expel Serb forces accused of atrocities against Albanian civilians during an insurgency.

An estimated 10,000 people died in the war. More than 3,000 are still missing, of whom 2,400 are ethnic Albanians.

The corpses of more than 800 ethnic Albanians killed in Kosovo and trucked hundreds of miles north were found in three mass graves near Belgrade and in eastern Serbia in 2001.

Fewer than half have been returned, a rate the U.N. mission says is unacceptably slow.