War In The Balkans: Humanitarian Aid - Relief operation begins in earnest

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THE EUROPEAN humanitarian relief operation got under way at dawn yesterday as 30 truck-trailers rolled off the Italian warship San Marco at the Albanian port of Durres. They were followed by 40 buses, 5,000 tents, 50,000 sleeping bags, 50 toilets as well as camp kitchens, food and medical supplies.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said it had held an emergency meeting yesterday with aid providers and had urged them to make direct donations to the countries taking in the refugees - Albania, Macedonia and the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro - concentrating on shelter, transport and medical assistance. An $8.5m (pounds 5.3m) pledge had been received from the United States over the weekend.

Britain has provided a transport plane to airlift tents and blankets to Albania, UNHCR said yesterday.

Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development, said yesterday that the situation in Kosovo had deteriorated rapidly over the past 24 hours and it was clear substantial further assistance was needed. UNHCR had enough tents and blankets, she said, but they needed to be moved very quickly to where people are.

The World Food Programme also said it had enough food but needed logistical support to get it to the people. Tony Blair announced on Monday that Britain was making available pounds 10m as an initial response to the crisis.

In the space of two days, 170 Italian military personnel, working with Italian and foreign aid workers, should be able to provide shelter for some 20,000 refugees. Thirty-eight buses, donated by Italian city transport authorities, will ensure the transport of exhausted families crossing the border into Albania to camps being established by the UNHCR in other parts of the country.

The San Marco is expected to head back to Bari to load more relief supplies. Its sister ship, the San Giorgio, may also be deployed to transport further goods.

Italy's Interior Minister, Rosa Russo Jervolino, led an Italian delegation visiting the Albanian town of Kukes yesterday to see what is needed. Ms Jervolino reiterated that the request from the Albanian authorities was for assistance to be sent there, rather than the dispatch of refugees to Italy and other European countries. But she added that if it became necessary for refugees to be evacuated they would not be left at the mercy of the criminal gangs who charge $1,000 to ferry migrants across the Strait of Otranto.

There are contingency plans should the flow of refugees prove so large that it cannot be dealt with in Albania or Macedonia. At a disused runway near Bari airport, 500 caravans have been allocated for use and a further 500 are available at a former Nato facility near Foggia, 60 miles to the north.

Although the Italians have kick-started the operation, they are hoping it will be a combined European effort. In addition, the Amsterdam Treaty, which comes into effect in May, binds EU members to sharing the social and financial costs of any refugee emergency.

n The Pentagon said yesterday that large amounts of food stockpiled in Kosovo in case of a major refugee crisis had been "lost" to the Serbs. The food is sufficient, it said, "to feed 400,000 people until September".

The admission helps to explain why food and other supplies were inadequate for the tens of thousands of refugees who have been leaving Kosovo since the launch of air strikes.