War in the Balkans: Refugee Camps - Military may force evacuation Camp may be evacuated

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The Independent Online
THE VAST tented camp at Kukes, the main crossing point on the border with Albania, may be forcibly cleared of its 35,000 refugees within a week. Observers believe that indicates Nato is preparing the area for alliance ground troops.

Lieutenant-General John Reith, Nato's commander in Albania, said the government in Tirana may order the camp to be shut if the refugees continue to resist efforts to transfer them elsewhere in the county as a means of avoiding the danger of an impending heatwave, water shortage and Serbian artillery. Lt-Gen Reith also said that, in his opinion, it will take up to two years to get the refugees back home, even after any peace settlement.

The experience of Bosnia had shown, he said, that when the infrastructure and the social fabric of a country is shattered, two years is the minimum time needed to resettle the population.

Lt-Gen Reith, one of the most influential figures in Albania at present, said it was still possible he would advise the government in Tirana to force the closure of the camp. Such a move would almost certainly provoke disturbances among refugees, according to aid workers. The Nato commander also said there had been reports that refugees who have agreed to move from Kukes have changed their mind after a visit from the Kosovo Liberation Army. Local KLA commanders are said to be against attempts by Nato and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to move the exiles to different locations, because it will distance them from an immediate return to their homes and also take away a pool of potential recruits.

There has already been talk of the Kukes camp being shut before the winter, when the temperature on high ground in the Albanian mountains can fall to minus 30C. However, the high summer temperatures in the mountains and an acute water shortage have led to fears that infectious diseases might start to spread among the thousands of refugees living under canvas.

Lt-Gen Reith said: "The camps should be shut down and even if we can begin next week it will take us three or four weeks to complete the mission. I want this to happen as I do not want to preside over ahuman catastrophe."

Nato forces have also discovered that Serbian ground troops have begun to dig in on the other side of the border in preparation for a possible land invasion of Kosovo. Their guns are within easy reaching distance of the Kukes camp. There is also increasing KLA activity in the area.

The general's forces, which already number 7,000 men, including marines and paratroopers based in Durres, have been providing humanitarian aid. However, indications that the ground is being laid for a land intervention include the fact that a number of roads are being built towards the border.

Units of armour are also present in the area, ready for future deployment. The forces under Lt-Gen Reith can be used for rapid deployment by Nato from Albania into Kosovo.

A further thousand troops are expected to join the Nato force in the near future.