War In The Balkans: Humanitarian Aid - Albania in crisis as tidal wave of 100,000 floods in

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AS TENS of thousands of terrified civilians pour out of Kosovo in search of sanctuary in neighbouring countries, aid agencies are struggling to keep pace with the escalating humanitarian crisis.

The exodus of mainly women and children is straining the resources of Kosovo's neighbours to breaking point. Albania, Macedonia and the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro have all received vast influxes of refugees over recent days.

Albania is bearing the brunt; 70,000 to 100,000 have arrived there in the past two days. The poverty-stricken country is barely able to feed its own people.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said yesterday it was relocating staff forced to leave Kosovo last week to Albania. It also plans to send an additional emergency team there in the coming days.

The refugees are exhausted and hungry. Many left Kosovo with only the possessions they could carry. Some say they were forced out of their homes at gunpoint by Serb security forces, with no time to gather even a few belongings.

Lyndall Sachs, a UNHCR spokeswoman, said efforts were being made to identify two sites where refugee camps could be set up in central Albania, so that people could be moved away from vulnerable border areas.

Aid agencies in Albania, which include Oxfam, the Red Cross and Save the Children, appealed for tents, medical supplies, blankets and field hospitals.

The World Food Programme, the United Nations' food aid agency, yesterday dispatched a four-truck convoy carrying nearly 10 tons of high-protein biscuits to the northern Albanian town of Kukes, where 70,000 refugees have arrived.

Another WFP convoy, carrying 40 tons of wheat flour and 10 tons of biscuits, headed for Tirana, the Albanian capital. The supplies are supposed to be sufficient to feed the current refugee population for a fortnight, after which more convoys will be sent.

In Berlin yesterday, the European Union announced it was putting together an emergency aid package of up to pounds 7m for the refugee crisis, while Emma Bonino, the EU Commissioner for overseas aid, said she was preparing to visit Albania tomorrow.

Ms Bonino said the priority was to provide shelter, sanitation and food. But EU cash may also be used to airlift some of the destitute population out of northern Albania, where roads and infrastructure are poor, into the south.

The UNHCR is attempting to get staff back into Montenegro, where 12,000 Kosovars have arrived in recent days. The local Red Cross is the only agency on the ground there.

"I don't know where to begin," said Ms Sachs, "I look at this mass of humanity, people who have already faced enormous trauma, pouring across the borders. The weather is freezing, they have absolutely nothing and they have gone to a country, Albania, that has nothing either."

Macedonia, which has already absorbed 20,000 Kosovar Albanians, is also stretched. The Red Cross said 1,500 more had entered in the past 24 hours. The Foreign Minister, Alexander Dimitrov, said 15,000 to 20,000 were heading their way, fleeing the latest Serb onslaught.

Mr Dimitrov warned that his country was "one step away" from being dragged into the war, and appealed for economic and military assistance from the EU and Nato.

In Albania yesterday, such was the crush of people waiting at Morina, its main border post with Kosovo, that the crossing was closed for a period.

Ms Sachs said contingency plans were being laid to deal with up to 200,000 refugees in Albania. "It is becoming clear that the potential for movement is enormous," she said.

The refugee crisis is causing concern in European capitals, particularly Rome and Athens, where governments fear they will suffer a fresh influx of people. They are likely to push for a Europe-wide programme of settlement for some of the displaced to relieve the pressure on "frontline" countries.