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Tuesday, June 22, 1999 Published at 09:23 GMT 10:23 UK

World: Europe

Serb refugees return to Kosovo

K-For promises to protect those who can be pursuaded to return

The mass exodus of Serbs from Kosovo fearful of reprisal attacks by ethnic Albanians appears to have been reversed.

Kosovo: Special Report
Nato says 2,000 Serbs have returned to Kosovo in about 48 hours.

General Sir Mike Jackson, the commander of the Nato-led peace force in Kosovo, confirmed an increasing number of Serbs were returning.

[ image: A girl at the Kosovo border watches a convoy of Serbs return]
A girl at the Kosovo border watches a convoy of Serbs return
And he told the BBC Nato estimated about a third of Kosovo's Serbs made their escape as Serb forces pulled out.

"Interestingly enough they're starting to come back. Over the past two to three days, there are increasing numbers who are now coming back - from which I take some encouragement," said Gen Jackson.

"I think it was inevitable that some left ... In the Balkans, rumour breeds on rumour, fear breeds on fear, and very often there is not a fact at the beginning of it."

Officials in Belgrade have been appealing to the Serb refugees to return, saying that if they do not there will be no Kosovo.

Their strong sense of identity with Kosovo, home of their church and the site of a 14th century battle that shaped Serbian history, is being used to attract them back.

Feeling manipulated

But a Serb man from the Kosovo town of Prizren said: "The government has manipulated us and left us without anything. They made us leave Kosovo and we don't have any assistance here - they just keep pushing us from one site to another.

"It's a madhouse down there right now. We would be killed or slaughtered if we go there. There's no security without the army, without police. You can't face them [ethnic Albanians] with your bare hands."

Some 50,000 Serbs are thought to have fled the troubled province since K-For forces moved in, but the authorities are pushing to get them back into the region by promising police escorts, food, water and fuel for the journey home.

Return to Pec

One group of Serbs who fled from Kosovo into Montenegro have returned to the town of Pec, in western Kosovo, accompanied by a heavily-armed Nato escort.

About 70 people returned in a convoy of vehicles that crossed into Kosovo early on Monday afternoon.

With military helicopters flying overhead, they were escorted to the Italian and Spanish military base in Pec, as fresh reports came in of clashes between Serbs and ethnic Albanians in the area.

A Spanish colonel said they would later be accompanied to their homes.

Vincent Diaz de Villegas said, "We hope that in the future we'll be able to do this with more Serbs and fewer forces, but this is the first time, and we need to assure their security."

The Serbs agreed to return after being reassured about their safety in Kosovo by Yugoslav ministers. Justice Minister Zoran Knezevic agreed to travel with them.

An estimated 4,000 Serbs moved out of Pec as the international peacekeeping force began its deployment. Only about 250 Serbs remained behind in the town.

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