War in the Balkans: Albania - Snipers and shells force evacuation of border camps

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The Independent Online
SHELLING AND sniping by Serb forces across the Albanian border - with two rifle shots coming close to a United Nations refugee worker - added weight yesterday to the UN and Nato assertion that the border area is dangerous for refugees and that, for their own safety, they need to be moved to camps in the interior.

Nato troops, including a small group of British soldiers in a military police role, formally launched the relocation yesterday by lorry and train. They will use Chinook helicopters from today to move the elderly and infirm.

It was a slow start with only 187 people, some of them distraught, leaving an Italian-run camp to head further south, but it showed a softening in the refugees' resistance to move.

There were emotional scenes at a camp outside the town of Kukes, 16 miles from the border, as Nato troops helped to evacuate the first 240 refugees under a formal relocation plan. Tough Dutch marines appeared to be sniffing back tears as they helped weeping women with babies on to the lorries at the start of yet another odyssey - an eight-hour lorry ride to the town of Mjede followed by a 12-hour train journey to their new home, the US-built Camp Hope near the city of Fier.

After the lorries' tailgates clanked shut, there was an eerie silence as lorry after lorry drove off, its occupants weeping or giving sad waves to those whose turn had not yet come.

Representatives of both Nato and the UN High Commission for Refugees said there was no fixed deadline but implied they hoped to empty the Kukes camps by the end of July.

It may not be easy. Those who left yesterday volunteered but others have made known they want to remain close to their homeland.

"We are not going to force them to leave. We are strongly encouraging them to leave," said the UNHCR spokesman, Rupert Colville. Lt-Col Helge Eriksen, spokesman for the Nato forces on refugee duty in the area, added: "The border shooting only confirms that moving the refugees out is the safest thing to do."

Two shots were fired at the Morini border post at 7.45pm on Monday, Mr Colville told reporters. "One of our workers heard the sound of the bullets pass close to him. That's pretty alarming. We may have to pull our people back from the border area."

Throughout yesterday, sporadic rifle shots rang out from Serb hillside positions but they appeared to be firing into the air. That apart, the crossing was eerily quiet for most of the day.

At one point, a well-dressed woman was seen walking across, in sharp contrast to the ragged hordes who had been crossing in recent days. She was Leonora Laci, a 35-year-old ethnic Albanian social security worker from Prizren, wearing gold earrings, an expensive sweater, black nylons, high heels and carrying only a leather handbag.

"Armed Serb police in civilian clothes came to my office in the morning and told me I had to leave Kosovo," she said. "When I asked why, they told me I was not worth wasting their breath on."