Saying conditions in Kosovo have greatly improved, Switzerland has announced plans to gradually return some 3,000 refugees to the country they fled three years ago.
The Swiss foreign minister, Joseph Deiss, said stability in the United Nations-administered Serb province had improved enough to repatriate the refugees, who are members of minority groups.
Speaking after a fact-finding mission in Kosovo on Monday, Deiss said he hoped the refugees would return voluntarily in the coming months.
The returns are expected to take place on an individual basis. Deiss pledged to exempt refugees who could not go back to live in their "immediate surroundings."
The refugees belong to the Roma and Ashkali minorities, who have been oppressed by nationalist ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
The members of the minority groups had fled to Switzerland together with around 50,000 other people, after being driven out of Kosovo by Serb forces in 1999.
A Swiss foreign ministry spokeswoman said the returnees would benefit from financial support and Swiss supervision of the repatriation.
Deiss said Switzerland would continue to help Kosovo. To date Switzerland has contributed about SFr334 million ($210 million) for shelter, reconstruction and rehabilitation projects in Kosovo since 1999.
He called on the newly elected government in Kosovo to press ahead with efforts to restore security and integrate minorities in the province.
The prime minister of Kosovo, Bajram Rexhepi, said his government welcomed the gradual return of the refugees. He asked Switzerland to help those returning by building houses and infrastructure.
Criticism by NGOs
Non-governmental organisations, including the Swiss Refugees Council, have warned of a hasty return for the remaining refugees from Switzerland, prior to Deiss' visit to Kosovo on Monday.
The groups acknowledged that the situation for minorities has generally improved, but that some Serbs, Roma gypsies and members of the Albanian-speaking Ashkali community still had to fear for their lives.
After Switzerland helped shelter more than 50,000 refugees from the Balkans, it launched a government-sponsored repatriation programme in 1999, which led to the voluntary return of some 30,000 people to Kosovo.
Switzerland has twice given a reprieve to ethnic minorities from the province, allowing them to extend their temporary stay.
by Urs Geiser