War in the Balkans: Aid Effort - Refugees on verge of riot in the camps

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REFUGEES PENNED into squalid, overcrowded Macedonian camps were on the verge of rioting yesterday as reports emerged of what could be Kosovo's worst massacre yet.

About 4,000 new refugees arrived at Blace, the main crossing point on the border between Kosovo and Macedonia, apparently fleeing a new Serb campaign of terror to clear villages in south-west Kosovo.

More than 2,000 Albanians, mainly women and children, made their way into Morini on the Albanian border telling of a massacre near Djakovica. In the village of Meje, they said, Serb police had ordered young and middle-aged men off their tractors. A subsequent convoy of refugees came across dozens of bodies lying in the streets.One woman said she saw scores of dead men lying on top of each other.

"The stories seem to indicate that a lot more people have been killed over the past few days in the Djakovica area by paramilitary troops than in any other single case of attack before" Kris Janowski, of the United Nations, said.

The latest wave of refugees is putting unbearable pressure on the thousands already packed into teeming camps in Macedonia and conditions are rapidly becoming intolerable. "The people are really living in unbearable congestion. It's very, very tense and it has to be defused very, very quickly," Mr Janowski said. "If we get another trainload or two and a few busloads again today it is really going to be a horrific situation in terms of overcrowding".

Apart from the risk of violence, he warned of the heightened risk of outbreak of disease in the camps. Epidemics of measles and hepatitis are highly possible, aid workers say.

Tensions have already surfaced between Macedonian Serbs and ethnic Albanians over how the Kosovar refugees should be treated. Muslim families have been opening their own homes to tens of thousands of displaced Kosovars but the authorities are pursuing a policy of interning them in camps where they enjoy little more freedom than prisoners. The camps are not officially closed but refugees have to be issued with a pass before they can move around and even then the right of movement is limited.

Refugees pouring into Macedonia yesterday arrived by train from Pristina and by bus from Urosevac. Some were taken directly to refugee camps, because the main holding camp on the border was already packed to capacity. Dismayed aid workers scrambled for somewhere to offer the new arrivals shelter but a new camp being built at Cegrane in western Macedonia was not expected to be ready until later today.

"There's mud, water, We're sleeping on the ground. We can't keep clean" said one man who had arrived from the southern Kosovo town of Urosevac on Tuesday and had spent the night at Blace.

Ron Redmond, spokesman for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, said 3,500 people had spent the night in a "squalid little camp" beside the border checkpoint where up to 70 people were sleeping in tents designed for 50. Aid workers were moving out of their own tents to make room for those who needed shelter most.