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  • Balkans Special Report

  •   Thousands of Refugees Flee Kosovo

    Albania refugee, Reuters
    An Albanian officer helps an ethnic Albanian women after she crossed the border from Serbia into Albania. (Reuters)
    By Peter Finn
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Monday, March 29, 1999; Page A1

    TIRANA, Albania, March 28 Columns of refugees, mostly women and children with little more than the clothes on their backs, walked and drove out of Kosovo today as a campaign by Yugoslav forces to empty the province of ethnic Albanians provoked one of the largest forced exoduses in Europe since the end of World War II.

    Refugees crossed the snow-capped mountains into Albania today at a rate of more than 1,000 an hour, relief officials said; more than 100,000 were said to be massed on the Kosovo side of the border. The number of refugees arriving in Macedonia also increased today, and there were reports of a five-mile column of ethnic Albanians on foot, in tractors and horse-drawn carts heading from western Kosovo toward Montenegro, Serbia's small, sometimes reluctant partner in the Yugoslav federation.

    The wave of refugees alarmed authorities in both Albania and Macedonia, as well as in Montenegro. Tens of thousands of displaced people could threaten to destabilize the two impoverished, ethnically mixed countries on Yugoslavia's southern border and draw them into the Kosovo conflict.

    Western officials here and at NATO headquarters in Brussels said an added disturbing element was that the majority of the refugees were women and children, raising the possibility that government security forces in Kosovo were either detaining men or executing them.

    "We have to recognize that we are now on the brink of a major humanitarian disaster . . . the likes of which we have not seen in Europe since the closing days of World War II," said NATO spokesman Jamie Shea, who accused the Serb-led Belgrade government of "pursuing a truly scorched-earth policy."

    Shea said that since NATO airstrikes against Yugoslav military targets began on Wednesday, 50,000 civilians have been made homeless in Kosovo, a province of Serbia, in which ethnic Albanians outnumber Serbs 9 to 1. Since armed conflict between Belgrade and separatist Kosovo Albanians began a year ago, an estimated 500,000 ethnic Albanians have been driven from their homes.

    The refugees now crossing into northern Albania told Western and Albanian officials that Kosovo Albanians are being rounded up by Yugoslav forces in the greater Prizren area and told they must leave the province through the nearby Morina border crossing. Prizren, Kosovo's second-largest city, is about 15 miles northeast of the border.

    "It's getting out of control," said Andrea Angeli, a spokesman for Western monitors on the Yugoslav-Albanian border. "We're not able to count these people anymore. . . . It's hell up there now."

    The number of refugees entering Macedonia increased sharply as well today, to 1,200 from what had been about 200 to 300 a day since the NATO airstrikes began. Many were from Pristina, Kosovo's capital, which is the scene of looting, burning and killing of civilians, according to refugees and relief officials, who said the violence was encouraging more people to take the risky 40-mile trip south.

    Many refugees called on NATO to send ground troops into Kosovo immediately. "The bombs are stopping nothing," said Jasmin Jaha, a relief worker from Pristina. "The [NATO] invasion is too late if it's not coming today."

    Here in Albania, at least 16,000 people traveling by foot, tractor, car and horse have crossed the border in the last 24 hours, and more continued to stream in tonight, according to Western monitors. The influx represents the largest single-day refugee migration into Albania since the Kosovo conflict began, officials said.

    The Albanian government issued a statement urging the international community to help end "this unprecedented genocide on the civil population," and a committee to help refugees appealed for gifts of medicine and food. The government also announced it would send 300 buses to the city of Kukes, near the Morina border crossing, to disperse refugees to other Albanian cities.

    A senior Western diplomat here in Tirana, the Albanian capital, said there are reports that as many as 100,000 people in southern Kosovo may be heading toward Albania. At the border crossing, which Yugoslav forces opened at 3 a.m. today, ethnic Albanians are being stripped of their possessions, identity papers and license plates before they cross, officials said. "Some are in cars, some are half-dressed and on foot," the Western diplomat said. "I think this is clearly a concerted effort."

    "The Serbs told us we had one hour to leave Kosovo," said a refugee who crossed into Kukes. As refugees began to flood into Kukes, a city of 20,000 155 miles north of Tirana, local residents came out to help, and shops stayed open through the night to provide food and water, officials said. Refugees wept openly on the city's streets. Behind the refugees, a mile inside Kosovo in the village of Dobrush, smoke rose from burning houses.

    The Albanian office of the Republic of Kosovo, an unofficial government in exile for the province, said it had received a report that a five-mile-long convoy of refugees was moving from the city of Pec in western Kosovo to Montenegro. About 5,000 people entered Montenegro today, five times the previous day's total.

    Western monitors on the border said Yugoslav forces are burning the homes of the departing refugees. The monitors said also that on Friday in the village of Goden, near the Albanian frontier, they watched Yugoslav troops round up residents and force out the women and children. Observers later heard gunshots but could not determine if they were warning shots to herd refugees or if they were aimed at the village's men, who never made it to Albania.

    Albanian President Rexhep Meidani, echoing a common sentiment here, said in an interview today that NATO should now use ground troops and invade Kosovo to stop "the criminal massacre of people in Kosovo."

    Hashim Thaci, a leader of the ethnic Albanian rebel movement who was a chief negotiator at this month's failed peace talks near Paris, urged ethnic Albanians to remain in Kosovo. "Albanian people, do not fall prey to panic," Thaci said in an address on Albanian television. "Do not abandon your century-long homes. We have no other homeland."

    Thaci issued his appeal following reports that Yugoslav forces had distributed leaflets purporting to come from the Kosovo Liberation Army, the main ethnic Albanian rebel group fighting government security forces, telling people to leave their homes.

    Thousands of people rallied in Tirana's central square this afternoon to hear angry condemnations of the Yugoslav actions. The opera house bore a huge banner depicting the flags of Albania and NATO and the words "NATO in Kosovo." Albanians carried signs reading, "Clinton: Champion of Freedom."

    Former Albanian president Sali Berisha told the noisy crowd, "Whoever is trying to push the Kosovars off their land deserves death."

    Correspondents Daniel Williams in Skopje, Macedonia, and R. Jeffrey Smith in Podgorica, Yugoslavia, contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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