War In The Balkans: Blair pins his colours to cause of refugees

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The Independent Online
"BLAIR - You Lead, We Die" read the placards of an enthusiastic crowd as Tony Blair flew to Tirana to visit Kosovo refugees and Albanian politicians.

Something may have gone wrong with the translation from Albanian, but there was no doubting the popularity that the Prime Minister's stance on Serbia has earned him among Albanians and Kosovars.

In the Albanian capital, Tirana, at least 1,000 peoplegathered around the steps of the office of Mr Blair's counterpart, Pandeli Majko, and greeted his brief speech with rapturous applause. "I gave him flowers and I shook his hand," gushed Alba Lybonja, a 17-year-old student. One woman was so overwhelmed that she burst into tears.

It was a far cry from the first leg of Mr Blair's Balkan tour. In Bulgaria, where memories linger of the stray missile that hit the outskirts of Sofia, and where old Communists look on Slobodan Milosevic with approval, he was subjected to heckling. Some anti-Nato protesters called him "a murderer".

In Albania, the Prime Minister visited a refugee camp in the southern city of Elbasan, where his call to carry on the war against Slobodan Milosevic was all but drowned out by chants of "Tony, Tony" and "Nato, Nato". "We bring justice and hope to the people here," said Mr Blair. "They are our cause, and we must not, and we will not, let them down. When I see the children in this camp I know why we are taking this action. I see this camp, and I know why we are taking this action. Our promise to all of you is that you shall return in peace in the land that is yours."

Elbasan is home to some of the more than 430,000 Kosovo Albanians who have fled to Albania from the province since March. Mr Blair looked extremely moved as he sat down among the refugees and heard first-hand reports of the brutality they had suffered at the hands of the Serbs. Miftar Mazrekaj, 72, and his wife, Zuhreta, told the Prime Minister what happened when soldiers entered their village."They hit me again and again in the chest and asked for money," said Mr Mazrekaj. "I told them I did not have much because I was only an old man, a pensioner, but I gave them all I had, 200 [German] marks (pounds 70). They had told me to undress and they kicked me and said I would be naked in front of the whole village. Those who did not have money were kicked and beaten." His wife continued: "At midnight they came. They had torches with them to look for pretty young girls. They took all the pretty young girls away and then they killed a father of two beautiful twins for no reason at all."

Another woman started to weep. In between sobs, she said: "We left families behind. We don't know what has happened to them, we just don't know."