Sunday, January 08, 2006

Kosovo PM toasts Christmas in rare visit to Serbs

By Matthew Robinson-(Reuters)-PRISTINA, Serbia and Montenegro.

Kosovo's ethnic Albanian prime minister handed out sweets and sipped the local firewater with Serbs on Friday in a rare visit to the dwindling Serb community on Orthodox Christmas Eve.

Pursued by jostling reporters, Bajram Kosumi and his black-suited entourage squeezed into the Raskovic home in a gray apartment block housing Pristina's six remaining Serb families.

"I came here to see how you're doing, how you live, and to wish you a Happy New Year and Merry Christmas," Kosumi said as aides carried in bags of sweets and chocolate for the children.

"I came to hear about the problems you're facing."

Serbs celebrate Orthodox Christmas on Saturday, January 7.

Kosovo's leaders are under intense pressure to offer the Serb minority a viable future in Serbia's disputed province, where the 90-percent mainly Muslim Albanian majority is pushing for independence from Belgrade in negotiations this year.

Perched on the living room sofa, Kosumi said his government was considering setting up a classroom in the estate for Serb children, who otherwise go to school in a nearby Serb enclave.

His host, Mirko Raskovic, said he planned to stay on the estate, which was attacked in March 2004 by Albanian mobs in a two-day orgy of rioting across Kosovo. "We have friends here and we all get along," he said.

His wife poured a glass of rakija, a type of brandy, for the prime minister as the couple's three daughters hid in the kitchen.

Kosumi spoke in Albanian for the cameras but briefly shared a joke in Serbian with his host.

Kosovo, a Serbian province of 2 million people, has been run by the United Nations since NATO bombing in 1999 drove out Serb forces accused of atrocities against Albanian civilians in a two-year war with separatist guerrillas.

Marginalized and targeted for revenge after the war, 100,000 Serbs remained when as many fled for Serbia proper. Tens of thousands moved out of Pristina alone, fearing an Albanian population bitter at years of repression.

Signs of reconciliation are rare and Kosovo's Western backers look kindly on any effort to preserve what's left of the province's multi-ethnicity as they weigh up Albanian demands for independence and Serbia's insistence they respect its sovereignty.

"It's harder than it used to be," said Dragana Savic, one of the Raskovic's Serb neighbors. Asked if the prime minister's visit meant something to them, she replied: "Honestly, not much."

PM Bajram Kosumi visited Serbs for Christmas (Kosovo dailies)*

Dailies report that PM Kosumi and Pristina Mayor Ismet Beqiri accompanied by
the Ministry of Returns Permanent Secretary Mihajlo Scepanovic visited the Serb
community that lives in Ulpiana neighborhood.
Under the headline ‘Kosumi and the 26 Serbs of Pristina’, Koha Ditore writes
that Kosumi pledged setting up a classroom for the Serb children, a kindergarten
and more security.
The paper quotes Kosumi as saying ‘we want to see how Serbs live in the city’
adding that regardless of the difficult living conditions, he could notice optimism
among the community.
According to the paper Kosumi also said that ‘we are building a new Kosovo and
Government is working a lot to provide security for all citizens, and employment
for all’.
Express headlined ‘[Kosumi] Come with us’ and quotes a Serb resident to have
told Kosumi ‘Employment is a problem, we live indoor and only from aids. We
have no problems to move, we can freely move around in the city’.
Kosova Sot in front-page editorial praised Kosumi’s recent visits to Serb
dominated areas and assessed it as a ‘good political initiative’.

(Additional reporting by Shaban Buza)
Reuters, *Kosovo Dailies

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