Kosovo pleads: send air drops or we die

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HUNDREDS of thousands of Albanians trapped in Kosovo face death by exposure, disease and starvation, according to exiled leaders who are calling on the West to make emergency aid drops from the air.

Ilaz Ramajli, the senior representative in Albania of Kosovo's unofficial government, said more than 300,000 people had fled to wooded mountainous regions of the province, with only ill-equipped Kosovo Liberation Army fighters protecting them from attack from Serbian forces.

"They have no food, clean water or clothing," he said in an interview. "The situation is becoming very serious indeed. Many, many people are dying already. Unless there are air drops of food, clothing, water and medicines very soon, it is possible there will be an enormous humanitarian catastrophe."

Mr Ramajli said his information came from refugees, from people in hiding with satellite phones and from KLA lines of communication. He said he was awaiting a reply from Nato, but Emma Bonino, the EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid, told the Independent on Sunday that food drops in previous humanitarian situations had been "a nightmare".

"There are large numbers of people in a desperate situation, but simply dropping aid has proved disastrous in the past," she said. "You can't drop it over the forests because it could land on people, so you have to drop it in clearings nearby. But when you do that it is either grabbed by the opposing soldiers, or the people in hiding have to break cover to collect it and are shot by the soldiers they are hiding from. I am desperate but helpless. I know we are facing a huge catastrophe, but someone has to tell me what more we can do. I just hope we can neutralise Milosevic in time to get in there and help those people."

As the bombing campaign against Yugoslavia went into its 18th day, it emerged that Britain is sending the aircraft carrier HMS Invincible to the Adriatic. Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, will announce today that the 22,000-tonne vessel has been diverted on its journey back from the Gulf and is expected to arrive in the region by Thursday.

The move reflects Nato's concern that it is still not having a hard enough impact on ground forces in Kosovo. General Wesley Clark, the alliance's Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, has requested "dozens" more warplanes to supplement the 600 now in the region or flying from bases in Britain and Germany.

Three out of four planned waves of attacks had to be abandoned on Friday night because of bad weather and prospects for flying over the weekend remain gloomy, Nato said yesterday. Air-raid sirens sounded a brief daytime alert for the first time in Belgrade yesterday, but the only bombs to fall were around Pristina, Kosovo's capital.

Although President Boris Yeltsin gave a dramatic warning on Friday that Russia would not permit Nato to mount a ground invasion of Kosovo, Tony Blair said yesterday that there was no threat to Nato countries.

"We simply have to accept differences of opinion over Nato action," the Prime Minister said, shortly after Mr Cook had received assurances from Igor Ivanov, his Russian counterpart, in a 45-minute telephone call that Moscow had no intention of becoming involved in any confrontation in the Balkans.