Exhausted, starving, dying

n 250,000 without shelter n FO admits `failure' n First evidence of Serb butchery
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DOWN IN the stinking valley the exhausted are beginning to die. The old are going first. Last night, in freezing rain and sub-zero temperatures, 10 of them just slipped away into coma and a merciful death. And somewhere among the 70,000 desperate people one baby died. This is only the beginning.

In less than 48 hours the valley floor of the River Lepenec, which forms the border between Kosovo and Macedonia, suddenly filled to the horizon as the full tide of the fleeing ethnic Albanians poured out of Kosovo.

From a trickle of a few thousand a day since Tuesday, 50,000 fresh refugees arrived in a fleet of packed trains and marched along the tracks to what they thought was safety - and yesterday Nato estimated that behind them is a procession of up to 225,000, stretching back for nearly 15 miles south of the Kosovo capital, Pristina.

In a few days, this growing tragedy could become a major catastrophe. The valley is an evil-smelling bog of brown mud and tons of rubbish and human waste in which babies drink only hot water and paste made with bread. There are many thousands of babies and young children and thousands more of the very elderly. For two days they have been without shelter, without hot food and without medical help, allowed to leave the valley only in tiny numbers by the Macedonian government. In effect they are trapped by a ring of armed Macedonian police.

And yesterday, in a move that could turn this trap into a disease-ridden dying ground, the Macedonian government threatened to close the border on the grounds that their country could be seriously destabilised by the presence of nearly a quarter of a million ethnic Albanians. They have demanded assurances that all Nato and EU countries should give a promise to take their share of the displaced people.

What is happening here is bewildering. Scores of officials of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are present in Skopje just down the road, along with representatives of many international agencies, including the Red Cross. But for nearly a week not a single ounce of hot food, not a single tent and not a single doctor has been brought here.

The irony of it is that ringing the entire body are nearly 12,000 well equipped troops of the Nato peacekeeping force, with field kitchens, engineers, tents, cooking facilities and catering staff, and they have been eager to help. But it was not until yesterday that the UNHCR, the lead aid agency, gave the go-ahead.

Within hours five camps were installed close to the border by British, Danish, German and Italian field engineers. The British camp at Bojane is the biggest. Their cooks prepared 2,000 chickens, to be split up into 16,000 pieces. But by nightfall there was no sign of the food getting to the refugees, and even when it comes it will give one meal to only a fraction of the vast crowd.

The military, it appears, have been offering their services since last Sunday, but according to a source they have been almost ignored. "We simply cannot do anything without the request of UNHCR and the Macedonian government," he said.

UNHCR officials say only that they did not realise so many people would arrive so quickly, and admit they are under great pressure. But a spokesman pointed out that planes full of aid were arriving daily in Skopje with tons of food, tents, blankets and medical supplies.

In the next few days tens of thousands more will arrive, increasing the threat of serious epidemic and starvation. The bitter irony of their situation is increased by the fact that none of them want to stay in the valley or go to camps. But Macedonian officials are taking hours to process handfuls of people, and Macedonian armed police are sealing them into the valley.

"It is tragic that these people fled men with guns," said a worker from a Maltese charity who watched from the hill, "and they are met by men with guns."