New refugee exodus as Serbs make `final push'

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The Independent Online
THOUSANDS OF Kosovars poured over the frontier to Macedonia yesterday in what may be Slobodan Milosevic's final push to cleanse the province of its Albanian population before Nato attacks cripple his army. "It's between 5,000 and 6,000 now and they are still coming," a UN refugee official said at the Blace crossing between Yugoslavia and Macedonia. The new arrivals raise the number of refugees who have come to Macedonia since Saturday to about 20,000.

Chaotic scenes broke out on the border post as police allowed relatives waiting on the Macedonian side to rush to buses full of refugees, trying to find relatives they had lost.Many had spent hours in the no-man's land near the border in the pouring rain before the exhausted column of women, children, elderly people and some men piled across.

There were similar scenes in Albania, where after a lull of several days hundreds of displaced Kosovars fled over the mountains to the northern town of Kukes. By midday, more than 1,000 women and children had crossed the border.

These refugees are the first to arrive in deplorable health, posing an extra problem to aid agencies and raising the danger of epidemics tearing through dangerously swollen refugee camps. "For the first time, malnutrition has been diagnosed among the refugees," said Susan Manuel, a spokeswoman for the World Food Program.

Their plight is in many cases the result of long forced marches or exposure to the elements for weeks, after hiding from the fighting in woods and gorges.

Fatmir Gashi, a former interpreter in Kosovo for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, said he had walked more than 60 miles to the Albanian border.

There is no obvious explanation for the sudden rush of expulsions, but observers draw a link with Nato's claim that it will have in effect destroyed the Yugoslav army in the province within two months. Now may be the Yugoslav leader's last chance to create an exclusively Serbian Kosovo - an invaluable card at future peace negotiations.

The overall commander of the air campaign, Lt-Gen Michael Short, said that allied planes were "finally" inflicting serious damage on Yugoslav forces in Kosovo.

He said: "I don't have a good feel for knowing how close they [the Yugoslav army] are to breaking, but I'll tell you that if we do this for two more months, we will either kill this army in Kosovo or send it on the run."

In Montenegro, the head of a UN fact-finding mission to Kosovo reported yesterday that "hundreds of thousands" of Albanians displaced within Kosovo were "in a desperate need of assistance". Sergio De Mello said the situation was far worse than expected.

He added: "Everything indicates that there is an attempt to ethnically cleanse Kosovo."

Can an air war succeed on its own? page 14; Biggest influx of refugees yet, page 15; Serbia's man in the Muslim world, page 16