Responding to reports of starvation among ethnic Albanians displaced inside Kosovo, a private relief group backed by the U.S. government is beginning a risky mission that NATO planes have not yet dared to undertake: airdropping food to thousands of people struggling to survive in isolated mountain hideouts.
The drops, to be carried out by planes and pilots from Moldova, a former Soviet republic, are being organized by the New York-based International Rescue Committee with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development. Officials put the cost of the operation at $1 million a month.
The first flight left from Pescara, Italy, early today local time to drop 5,000 bright yellow leaflets advising that "food rations and other emergency supplies" are on the way. On Thursday, Russian-made Antonov 26 cargo planes painted white with orange stripes are to conduct trial drops of special "humanitarian daily rations" -- two-pound packages of heavy-duty plastic containing vegetarian meals produced by the same firm that makes the U.S. military's "meals ready to eat," or MREs.
On Friday, two Antonovs, each with a crew of six, are to start dropping full loads of 4,000 rations per plane under a contract between the International Rescue Committee and Skylink Air and Logistics, a Canadian-owned company with offices in Washington. A Swiss firm, Societe Generale de Surveillance, will monitor the loading to ensure that the drops are limited to food supplies, the committee said.
"There will not be a warning of the drop," the leaflets say in Albanian, Serbo-Croatian and English. "If you see or hear these aircraft, stay under cover. Avoid the falling supplies as you may be injured if you are hit by them."
The International Rescue Committee informed the Yugoslav mission to the United Nations of its plans last week and was told that Belgrade "will not give permission," said Barbara Smith, the committee's vice president for overseas operations. The committee nevertheless decided to go ahead with the airdrops and to advise Yugoslavia when each flight would leave and which "corridor" it would take, although not precisely where it would drop the supplies, Smith said.
A spokeswoman for the Yugoslav mission in New York said airdrops without Belgrade's approval are "unacceptable" and suggested that the planes risked being shot down because "it's very difficult to identify whether they're NATO planes trying to bomb our country or humanitarian planes."
"The whole process is extremely risky," Smith said.
Hugh Parmer, an AID assistant administrator overseeing the operation in Pescara, said the dangers are outweighed by the threat of starvation to many internal refugees. Of an estimated 600,000 displaced people inside Kosovo, about 50,000 are hiding in mountainous areas out of reach of Serb forces and cut off from all supplies, he said. Roughly half are in locations where "we think it's practical to airdrop supplies to them."
Parmer said Kosovo Liberation Army forces are "likely" to be in the same areas, but what matters are the "dire needs" of civilians who ran out of food weeks ago.
"We have unconfirmed reports in the last week of deaths among the very vulnerable -- the elderly and young children -- from malnutrition," Parmer said. "There are reports of people eating grass and leaves."
The meals to be airdropped come in three variations and contain such offerings as lentil stew, pasta, beans and rice, peanut butter, biscuits and fig bars. They pack 2,200 calories each and are high in protein and carbohydrates. The meals also are meatless.
"They can't offend any religious faith, although maybe a good chef would be offended," said Mark Bartolini, a spokesman for the International Rescue Committee in Pescara.