The Balkans Truce: The Clear-up - At least a month to make Kosovo habitable again

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The Independent Online
NATO HAS told the UN and aid agencies that it will take at least 30 days for Kosovo to be made safe for its people to begin their return home. That time will be needed to clear thousands of mines and debris from allied weaponry across the land, repair bridges and roads.

The Macedonian government, under strain from having 270,000 Kosovo exiles within its frontiers, is said to be keen to move them back as soon as possible. Alliance planners are said to have borne this in mind when drawing up the strategy for the return. Military commanders know that as well as the possibility of facing Serbian irregular forces who may not abide by a cease-fire, Nato faces a daunting civil task.

The infrastructure of the province has been destroyed by the weeks of pounding allied bombing and the actions of the Serbian forces. There will be acute power shortages and badly damaged and contaminated water supplies. No crops were planted this year and the land simply would not be able to support hundreds of thousands of people coming back.

Among the alliance forces Italians are said to be keen to be among the first wave. What is almost certain is that British, American and French troops, as well as German armour, will be among the advance party.

The "heavy gear" ready to go in include Britain's 26 Challenger 1 and Germany's 33 Leopard 2 tanks. It would have been extremely difficult to move them across the narrow passes of the Black Mountains into Kosovo if this had been an opposed invasion. But in a "semi-permissive" situation the armour could be ambushed by irregular commandos.

Another alternative is to send in lightly armoured Scimitar vehicles to spy out the land and establish forward bases. Whichever option is taken, a large proportion of the advance party would consist of sappers and engineers to open up and make safe the routes.

Plans have also been drawn up for medical teams to go in and treat the people who had been trapped inside Kosovo. There have been reports of starvation and outbreaks of diseases. These diseases will have to be contained before large numbers of people are allowed back in.

In Kukes, Albania, a United Nations refugee agency spokeswoman Judith Kumin said the refugees there were also wary.

"The refugees are of course hopeful," she said. "I think elated might be too strong a word. They are very, very cautious.

"They are going to wait to see whether there is indeed a complete withdrawal of Yugoslav forces and they want the NATO forces to be deployed. It's only then they will believe the conditions might be secure enough for them to return," she added.

Most refugees in Stankovic camp said they would not move from their camps until they were absolutely sure NATO had taken over Kosovo and made a return safe.

"I am afraid that we can be betrayed again, as always. But I am prepared to go home any tim after Nato troops get into Kosovo," said Nexhmedin Kazazi, 52, who is from Gnjilane. "And who knows what we are going to find when we get home."

Kazazi arrived in Macedonia two weeks after being wounded when Yugoslav forces attacked a village where he was staying.

NATO officials and aid workers have warned that one of the biggest dangers facing refugees when they return to Kosovo could be mines and booby traps left behind by retreating Yugoslav forces.

"We will go back home if peacekeeping troops are under NATO command and if they enter Kosovo first. We don't want to be victims of Serbian mines." said Xhafer Shabani from Podujevo.