- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 23, 2002

Radical ethnic Albanian groups will turn to violence if the international community does not deal quickly with Kosovo's desire for independence from Serbia, the province's prime minister warned yesterday.
Saying that close to 100 percent of the province's majority ethnic Albanians favor independence, newly installed Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi told a Washington audience that prolonging Kosovo's uncertain status was a recipe for disaster.
"There are radical groups ready to start a new conflict if we do not see action in the next few years," said Mr. Rexhepi, a surgeon who served in the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) during the NATO campaign against the government of former Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
Kosovo has enjoyed limited autonomy under a U.N. protectorate since the end of the war, with troops from the United States and other Western powers still providing the bulk of the security for the province. Kosovo's new government, headed by President Ibrahim Rugova and Mr. Rexhepi, came to power in March after elections late last year.
The major powers have purposely left Kosovo's ultimate political fate unclear, with many Western European leaders in particular worried that independence for Kosovo could undermine the fragile democratic government in Belgrade and inflame ethnic tensions across the Balkans.
The fledgling Kosovo government faces a host of problems, from the status of tens of thousands of Kosovo Serbian refugees looking to return home, to rebuilding the shattered economy, to dealing with corruption and organized crime, much of it linked to former KLA operatives.
A report issued yesterday by the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe found that the plight of minorities in Kosovo is "unacceptable," despite a decline in lethal attacks.
Walter Irvine, head of the U.N. refugee operation in Kosovo, said at a press conference in Pristina, the provincial capital: "Aggression against minorities has taken a softer style that we call harassment. But such continuous harassment has strong psychological consequences, which in combination make people not want to move."
But Mr. Rexhepi said demanding an answer to Kosovo's final status was "neither an extreme position or an irrational luxury," despite the interim government's massive challenges at home.
He said the new administration's ability to promote the economy, the rule of law and democratic reforms depended on its ability to extend its authority throughout the province and to deal with the desire of an overwhelming majority for independence. Although prone to squabbling among themselves, all of Kosovo's major ethnic Albanian political parties favor independence.
Mr. Rexhepi also said that NATO, and, especially, U.S. troops, should remain in the province, even if independence from Serbia is achieved. Camp Bondsteel, a major U.S. base in southeastern Kosovo, has been operating there since the 1999 war.


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