Highlighting a surge in the number of murders of Kosovo Serbs over the past year, the United Nations refugee agency has issued three linked reports showing that inter-ethnic relations in the troubled province are so fragile that minority groups continue to need international protection from the threat of violence.
The reports from UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) indicate that Kosovo's minority groups are at risk of attacks ranging from acts of stone-throwing to violent assaults, forcible displacement and even murder.
Briefing reporters today in Geneva, UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond said the series of reports show that 12 Serbs were killed between January and November last year, compared to five for all of 2002.
Then, in mid-March this year, Kosovo's ethnic tensions spilled over into several days of public violence and riots. During that period at least 19 people were killed and hundreds of others were injured, while many homes, churches, monasteries and other buildings of significance to minorities were damaged and destroyed.
Mr. Redmond said the events of March led UNHCR to conclude in one of the reports that Kosovo's minorities, especially its Serbs, Roma, Ashkaeli and Egyptians, need further protection from the international community.
Mr. Redmond said some Kosovo Albanians also need protection, including those in ethnically mixed marriages and people considered to have associated with Serbian authorities before 1999.
The reports also argued that it is not reasonable to forcibly return members of Kosovo's minority groups to other regions of Serbia and Montenegro, citing the hardships facing many of the tens of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) already living there.
There has only been a small amount of voluntary returns within Serbia and Montenegro since 1999. About 1,030 people have returned to their homes so far this year, bringing the total to nearly 11,000.
Kosovo's permanent future status has not yet been determined. Since 1999, the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) has been helping the people of the province to establish a UN-led interim civilian administration under which they can progressively enjoy substantial autonomy.