Serbia and Kosovo culture ministers to discuss common cultural heritage

The culture minister of Serbia and his counterpart from Kosovo were to hold talks Friday on the troubled province's cultural heritage.

The meeting in Belgrade comes amid stepped-up contacts between the two ethnically divided sides, ahead of U.N.-mediated negotiations on Kosovo's final status expected later this year.

Dragan Kojadinovic, the Serb minister, said he would focus on the issue of Serbian cultural heritage, Orthodox churches and monasteries destroyed in rioting by ethnic Albanian mobs in March 2004.

Despite promises of speedy repair by Kosovo's interim, ethnic-Albanian government, most of the Serbs' religious sites in Kosovo remain gutted.

The March 2004 violence was the worst since the 1999 NATO air war ended Serbia's crackdown on ethnic Albanians seeking independence and a U.N. mission took over control of Kosovo.

The new outbreak left 19 people dead and about 900 injured, with 800 Serbian homes and 29 Serbian Orthodox churches destroyed. Some 4,000 Serbs fled the U.N.-run province at the time.

Kosovo's culture minister, Astrit Haracia, said his visit to Belgrade, the third attempt to bring the two sides to a table to discuss culture, was "significant" for regional stability.

"I will not discuss political issues," Haracia told The Associated Press ahead of the talks.

"I will go there to demand the return of Kosovo's cultural treasures," Haracia said, referring to 676 archaeological and 571 ethnological artifacts the ethnic Albanian side says were taken to Serbia before NATO's bombing campaign.

"These artifacts are still there and their return to Kosovo remains in limbo," said Kosovo's museum director, Arber Hadri, adding the items were "archaeological treasures and part of Kosovo's cultural identity."

Kosovo officially remains part of Serbia-Montenegro, the union that replaced Yugoslavia. The province's majority ethnic Albanians want full independence, but the Serb minority insists Kosovo remain part of Serbia-Montenegro.

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