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  •   Kosovo Escape Routes Closed Off Again

    Albanian soldier
    An Albanian soldier looks at the Serbian side of the Albanian border at Morina, the main entry point into the country. (AP Photo)
    By John Lancaster and James Rupert
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Tuesday, April 20, 1999; Page A1

    For the second time since NATO began its air war against Yugoslavia, authorities in Belgrade abruptly shut down the flow of ethnic Albania refugees from Kosovo to its southern neighbors, cutting off their escape route after days in which tens of thousands have fled the province. Only a few hundred refugees made the crossing today into Albania, Macedonia or Montenegro.

    The Belgrade government's decision effectively to close the border added to fears among NATO governments and aid organizations about the fate of 500,000 to 850,000 displaced ethnic Albanian refugees still inside Kosovo, where many of them are believed to be without shelter and running low on food as Serb-led Yugoslav forces continue to expel whole communities from their homes.

    As the NATO air campaign entered its 27th day, President Clinton asked Congress for an extra $6 billion to finance the offensive, an amount that members of the House and Senate said they would meet or even exceed. U.S. officials also sought to persuade NATO allies to consider measures for stopping the flow of oil to Yugoslavia from foreign suppliers, including the use of force.

    U.S. and allied warplanes continued their raids on targets in Kosovo and elsewhere in Yugoslavia – including a government headquarters in the country's second-largest city, Novi Sad, that was badly damaged early yesterday morning. Late last night, night, loud explosions were heard near the city of Nis, Yugoslavia's third-largest, according to the official news agency Tanjug.

    Although bad weather forced the cancellation of some NATO missions, officials in Washington and at NATO headquarters in Brussels pronounced themselves pleased with the progress of the air war, which is aimed at forcing the government of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to pull its troops out of Kosovo and permit the safe return of refugees under the protection of an international peacekeeping force.

    At the same time, NATO officials reversed themselves after five days of confusion and acknowledged yesterday that precision-guided bombs from alliance warplanes probably killed a number of ethnic Albanian refugees during attacks last week on two separate columns of vehicles in Kosovo.

    Tensions remained high in Albania, where police exchanged fire with Yugoslav forces across the border in Kosovo and an advisor to President Rexhep Mejdani said his government is seeking ways to arm ethnic Albanian rebels of the Kosovo Liberation Army – a step that Washington has resisted for fear that it could further destabilize the region.

    The NATO air assault has infuriated Russia, where President Boris Yeltsin told reporters yesterday that the United States and its allies "want to win and make Yugoslavia a protectorate," adding: "We cannot permit that. It is a strategic zone, very important."

    At the same time, Yeltsin told Clinton in a 45-minute phone conversation that Russia would not send additional ships to the region and "reaffirmed that he will not allow Russia to be drawn into this conflict," White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said. In New York, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said he will visit Moscow on April 29 at Russia's invitation to discuss ways of ending the Kosovo crisis.

    Yugoslavia last closed the Kosovo border on April 7, declaring that offensive actions against ethnic Albanian rebels in the province had ceased and that refugees were welcome to return. It soon became apparent, however, that government military operations in Kosovo had not been suspended, and forced expulsions resumed last week.

    Belgrade's motives in closing the border again remained unclear. "It all sounds fairly ominous, and we don't know to what end they're doing it," said Kris Janowski, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commission for Refugees in Geneva.

    Along the Albanian border with Kosovo, columns of fleeing Kosovo Albanians, whose numbers had sharply increased in recent days, disappeared yesterday. Yugoslav forces appeared to be blocking hundreds of thousands of refugees – many expelled from their homes by masked paramilitary gunmen – from reaching Kosovo's borders and are forcing them back into the province, said NATO officials and humanitarian agencies.

    Many of the refugees have been on the road for days – in cars, tractor-towed farm wagons or on foot – and relief officials expressed fear that displaced people within Kosovo are in danger of malnutrition and exposure. "We are absolutely sure that it's not that the people turned around themselves," said Janowski. "They are being forcibly prevented from leaving Kosovo."

    In Morina, Albania – the main border crossing from Kosovo and the conduit for an estimated 40,000 people over the weekend – only 28 refugees had been counted for all of yesterday, U.N. officials said. In a measure of new tensions along the border, Albanian soldiers took up defensive positions at the border post, scanning the Yugoslav frontier and ordered journalists to leave.

    The flow of refugees stopped late Sunday, after the Belgrade government announced it had formally broken diplomatic relations with Albania over its role in hosting NATO forces fighting to try to reverse the expulsion of the Kosovo Albanians.

    The few refugees who did emerge from Kosovo told of driving over deserted roads, past empty towns. Over the weekend, arriving refugees had described miles-long columns of vehicles and crowds on foot moving toward the borders. U.N. officials in Macedonia reported that a woman arriving there Sunday told of paying 1,200 deutschemarks, about $650, to Yugoslav soldiers to be allowed to reach the border, Janowski said.

    In Macedonia, no more than a hundred refugees crossed the border at Blace, which had been the main portal into the country and where tens of thousands had crossed in the past five days. Most of yesterday's arrivals came by car to the border, where they were forced to leave their vehicles and walk across.

    One man said, however, that he had spent the last six days walking from village to village on his trek south, playing a dangerous game of hide-and-seek with Yugoslav security forces and Macedonian border police. He said he finally crossed illegally into Macedonia after being assisted by some men he believed were aid workers operating along the border.

    "The people are not coming because they are afraid they'll be caught or killed," said Ibush Goca, 32, who was one of a handful of refugees to arrive yesterday in Bladze, Macedonia, site of a large refugee camp not far from the border.

    "They hear about killing and massacres in the region," said Paula Ghedini, an official with the U.N. refugee agency in Macedonia. "We don't have any idea what is going on today in Yugoslavia. It's like a black box to us. We only know that the numbers have dropped to almost nothing. The Yugoslavs turn it off and turn it back on, and we just have to wait and see what happens tomorrow."

    The weekend surge of refugees had strained efforts in Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro – Serbia's smaller partner in the Yugoslav federation – to provide the exiles with emergency shelter and food. According to the U.N. refugee workers, more than 600,000 ethnic albanians have fled Kosovo since NATO began its bombing campaign on March 24. Of those, an estimated 365,000 have fled to Albania – and almost half of those remain in and around the town of Kukes, near the Morina crossing.

    Relief officials are anxious to move refugees out of Kukes, which is only 10 miles from the border and vulnerable to a spillover of the war from Kosovo. Last week, an artillery shell apparently fired from Yugoslavia exploded outside the town, near a training camp of the Kosovo Liberation Army, which has waged a yearlong guerrilla war in the province to try to gain independence from Belgrade.

    And the estimated 150,000 refugees in and around Kukes clearly are straining the resources of the and its 23,000 permanent residents. Streets are clogged with the refugees' cars and tractors and sidewalks with idle refugees – many forming long lines at a half-dozen downtown pay phones. Thousands of people use the phones – and three satellite phone lines provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross – to call relatives abroad.

    NATO military officers have arrived in the area to begin preparing for helicopter flights designed to shuttle in emergency supplies and carry refugees farther from the border, where it will be easier to shelter them and provide them with supplies.

    International aid workers have also been making the pilgrimage to Kukes – on Sunday with tragic consequences. Refugees International, a Washington-based advocacy group, reported yesterday that three of its representatives had been killed, along with their Albanian driver, when their car apparently slid off the mountain road to Kukes in bad weather. The three were identified as David B. and Penny McCall – both board members of the group – and Yvette Pierpaoli, its European representative.

    Government officials in Macedonia and Montenegro said they need more international help for the refugees arriving there. "Montenegro is on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe," Montenegrin Prime Minister Filip Vujanovic told the Reuters news agency.

    Relief agencies and Macedonian officials continued to argue over how to share the burden of the more than 130,000 refugees who have arrived there. Macedonian Foreign Minister Aleksander Dimitrov told journalists in Vienna that "we are on the brink of disaster in the economy," and he repeated a call for other countries to take in more of the refugees who are fleeing to Macedonia.

    In Washington, the White House budget office formally submitted a $6.049 billion emergency funding request, of which roughly $5 million will be used to replenish U.S. war materiel exhausted during nearly a month of NATO airstrikes, while the rest would help aid workers cope with hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians refugees.

    "The need for this funding is urgent, immediate, clearly in the national interest," Clinton said yesterday, adding that "lives are hanging in the balance."

    U.S. officials were also considering ways to stanch the flow of oil to Yugoslav forces via Montenegrin ports on the Adriatic Sea. A NATO spokesman called on oil suppliers Monday to suspend shipments to Yugoslavia voluntarily, but U.S. officials said they were seeking to overcome resistance by some NATO allies for more aggressive measures.

    State Department spokesman James Rubin said: "We do believe it's appropriate to take all possible steps to deny Belgrade the access to petroleum, oil and lubricants . . . that contribute to Yugoslavia/Belgrade's war machine."

    Rupert reported from Kukes, Albania. Correspondents William Booth in Skopje, Macedonia and Sharon Lafraniere in Moscow contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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