War in the Balkans: Nato commits more troops amid fears for refugee `human shields'

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The Independent Online
NATO IS sending 8,000 troops to cope with the apocalyptic refugee crisis in the Balkans, as fears grew that thousands of refugees herded back into Kosovo by the Serbs may end up being used as "human shields".

The alliance said Operation Allied Harbour, involving 14 states, would set up "sanctuaries" in Albania for the 300,000 Kosovars already in the country and for the tens of thousands more in neighbouring Macedonia. At Korce in Albania, 10,000 refugees deported on Tuesday night from the camp at Blace, Macedonia, were yesterday dumped in a sports stadium lacking the most basic facilities. Many were taken in by families in the town of 60,000, although they can barely afford to feed themselves. About 1,500 refugees were still in the stadium last night, huddled round campfires, sprawling on filthy blankets or sitting, stock-still and in shock, on numbered chairs. Some clutched Korans and prayed softly. They have nothing with them - what little they brought out of Kosovo was left in Macedonia.

Nato said it was still concerned for the whereabouts of at least 10,000 refugees deported from Blace, spirited out of the camp on buses in the middle of Tuesday night. The alliance said it reserved its worst fears for the fate of the refugees forcibly returned to the interior of Kosovo from the Albanian frontier on Wednesday. "We do not know whether they are being driven back to their homes or elsewhere within Kosovo," Clare Short, Secretary of State for International Development, said in London.

"Our message to [Slobodan] Milosevic is that the forcible movement of people in whatever direction is unacceptable. He and his henchmen will be held fully responsible for any harm that comes to the Kosovars at the hands of the troops and paramilitaries."

Nato's secretary-general, Javier Solana, told Spanish radio that Mr Milosevic "could be trying to use people as human shields in case the alliance's military action is concentrated more on the ground".

Nato's fears about civilians being used as human shields are based on experience of Serb tactics in the 1992-95 war in Bosnia, where the Serbs tied UN peace-keepers to wooden posts to stop threatened Western air strikes.

In Luxembourg, European Union foreign ministers called for the Yugoslav President to face the UN war-crimes tribunal. Responsibility for the carnage in Kosovo "lies entirely with President Milosevic and his regime", they said. "All those who planned, authorised and executed this brutal campaign of forced deportation, torture and murder should be held personally accountable and be brought to justice."

The task facing Operation Allied Harbour is vast: 500,000 Albanians have fled Kosovo since the Nato assault started. Aid agencies believe 100,000 have gone to West Europe or the US. Albania has taken in 303,000, Macedonia 117,000, Montenegro 59,000 and Bosnia 24,500. Yesterday Nato insisted the 8,000 troops do not form the advance guard for an invasion force to take on the Serbs in Kosovo. Most observers say that would require about 100,000 troops.

But Serbia, rattled by the bombings and the threat of an invasion, pressed on with a peace offensive, proclaiming an "end of hostilities" in Kosovo and inviting all the ethnic Albanians to return to their looted and burnt shops and homes. "The Yugoslav government once again calls on all citizens of Kosovo not to leave their country and to live in harmony and co-operation," it said.

The acting president of Cyprus, Spyros Kyprianou, arrived in Belgrade to secure the release of three US soldiers captured by the Serbs on the Macedonian border, though Serbia's hardline deputy prime minister, Vojislav Seselj, said a quick release was "out of the question."

Serbia's desperation reflects Nato's increasing confidence. The alliance said that it may blow up Serbian TV, Mr Milosevic's mouthpiece and a vital component of the regime.