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The War in the Balkans: Rocket attacks force refugees to abandon Albania

THE EVACUATION of tens of thousands of Kosovo refugees from northern Albania has been stepped up because of the threat of Serb rocket attacks.

After tension increased at the border between Albania and Kosovo, the UN High Commission for Refugees is applying pressure for up to 110,000 Kosovars at camps in Kukes to board buses and helicopters and head south.

The UNHCR said no one would be moved under duress, but yesterday about 100 bewildered people were removed from a mosque and put on board buses by police against their wishes.

The UNHCR's anxiety has been fuelled by Serb attacks on Kosovo Liberation Army camps inside Albania in Tropoje, Dobrun and Krume in which cluster- style rockets were aimed at - but missed - their targets.

Owen O'Sullivan, an observer from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, at Kukes, said Serb rockets have a range of 50km, while the group of about 10 camps in and around Kukes are less than 15km from the border.

On Tuesday, there was a 12-hour firefight near Quafa Prushit, in Albania, after Serb forces attempted to ambush members of an Albanian army patrol and take them hostage.

"We are very concerned about the security situation in respect of the Kukes district," said Nicholas Morris, the UNHCR special envoy for the former Yugoslavia and Albania. "While we understand an increasing reluctance on the part of many refugees to go down [south] we believe it is extremely important for them to go.

"The first time a shell, God forbid, lands here ... the first question you would ask my team is why we had not foreseen such an event."

Yesterday Nato flew 112 sick and elderly people and their families to Peshkopi in Chinook helicopters after much confusion. The refugees were kept sitting for more than two hours in five trucks in a field, surrounded by armed Italian soldiers. The spectacle was made more embarrassing when the Italian troops put on rubber gloves when they were required to touch the Kosovars.

Conditions at the camps are growing intolerable because of cold weather and intermittent rain. Nevertheless, many want to wait for missing relatives or to safeguard the tractors they arrived in.

Hassan Gashi and his wife, Hyrishahe, both 33, have been living on the back of their tractor with their three children for two weeks. Mr Gashi said: "I am not leaving without my tractor - it's all we have left. If we are forced to go and leave it behind, I am sure it will be stolen."