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Liberation of Kosovo: Refugees - Half Albanians `already home'

EIGHT BUSES carrying 332 Albanian refugees arrived in Pristina yesterday morning, the first returns to Kosovo organised by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

"This is the first day and we did not want to run 5,000 people up here in one fell swoop," Ron Redmond, UNHCR spokesman, explained. "We've only identified three urban areas where we've got all the conditions in place for a return." The designated safe environments are the province's capital, Pristina, and the southern towns of Prizren and Urosevac.

Aid workers handed out yellow food-ration packages and bottles of water to help in the first few hours, and lists of distribution points for those needing longer-term assistance. Mr Redmond said the number of refugees outside Kosovo had dropped below 400,000, which suggests that more than 400,000 refugees have already returned to their homes independently.

Sami Rrustemi, a Kosovo Liberation Army fighter demobilised on Sunday, went straight to Stenkovic refugee camp close to the Macedonian border to find the relatives he had not seen for a year. "I was in the mountains fighting," he said, "and the family went to Pristina last summer when [the Serbs] burnt our house."

On Sunday he walked into the camp and met a cousin who passed on the family's tent number. "No one believed that we would see each other again," Mr Rrustemi said. "There were tears, of course, but also very big smiles, a lot. It's just like a dream, I still cannot believe it."

The return of the refugees will only mark the start of the struggle back to normality. Kosovo is a shattered country with a virtually non-existent infrastructure. At times it seems that the only things working are being organised by either the international peace force K-For or foreign aid agencies. Even in Pristina there are shortages of basic items and fuel remains scarce. Crime is also increasing, with many homes and properties being looted or attacked by arsonists.

In Belgrade, meanwhile, a UN official appealed for more aid and attention to be given to Serbs fleeing Kosovo. Paula Biocca, of the UN World Food Programme, said the number of displaced Serbs from Kosovo "could easily be up to 100,000", while earlier estimates had put the number at 70,300.

Ms Biocca visited 12,000 Kosovo Serbs who found shelter in two camps in the central Serbian town of Kraljevo, but she said 8,000 more were believed to be in the area. The World Food Programme started distributing the first emergency food aid to Kosovo Serb refugees on 23 June.