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Putin Urges Protection of Kosovo Serbs - 2004-03-20

Russian President Vladimir Putin is urging that tough action be taken in Kosovo, where violence erupted earlier this week between Serbs and ethnic Albanians, who form the majority of the province's population.

A stern-faced Vladimir Putin met with his top ministers on Saturday for their weekly meeting. At the top of their agenda was the recent violence in the Serbian province of Kosovo.

In remarks on Russian state television, President Putin called the developments in Kosovo "ethnic cleansing," and he called for protection to be given to the minority Serbs living there. "Russia cannot just sit by and watch what is happening there," the Russian president told his ministers. "Our western colleagues agree that this is nothing other than ethnic cleansing. Some tough action must now be taken to protect the Serbs."

President Putin asked his new foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and the secretary of Russia's Security Council to draw up a clear position for Russia on the problems in Kosovo.

He also ordered his emergency situations minister, Sergei Shoigu, to travel to Serbia-Montenegro to offer help to refugees and tackle difficulties caused by the violence.

NATO troops have evacuated ethnic Serbs in the majority Albanian southern half of Kosovo, which was torched and looted by crowds of Albanians. Serbian nationalists retaliated by burning mosques.

On Friday, Russia's parliament unanimously passed a resolution condemning the failure of international organizations to stem violence in Kosovo. It also said a new United Nations resolution should be passed to reaffirm the Belgrade government's sovereignty over Kosovo.

Russia has long been sympathetic to Serbs, who are fellow Slavs and share the Orthodox religion. It was firmly opposed to the 1999 NATO bombardment of Yugoslavia to halt Serbia's crackdown on ethnic Albanian militants seeking independence.

The Russian parliament says it is ready to offer any assistance if Serbs are forced to flee Kosovo.