War in the Balkans: Refugees: Thousands more head for Macedonia

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The Independent Online
NATO FORCES, humanitarian agencies and the government of Macedonia were preparing last night for another massive influx of refugees into the tiny Balkan country, amid signs that Slobodan Milosevic was finally allowing homeless Albanian refugees trapped inside Kosovo to make their escape.

Plans to hand over the running of Macedonian refugee camps from Nato forces to international humanitarian agencies were under review after reports from Kosovo that as many as 650,000 refugees might be moving towards the border. Such an exodus would severely stretch even Nato and the United Nations, and would contribute to growing tensionwithin Macedonia.

After several days of calm at the Macedonia-Kosovo border, an estimated 3,000 refugees crossed yesterday, and were last night on buses at the border crossing of Blace waiting to be transported to the nearby British- run camp at Brazde. Reports from inside Kosovo suggested that having sealed off the routes out of the province last week, the Serbian army was now allowing refugees out by train and on foot.

Most of yesterday's arrivals came from the town of Urosevac and the surrounding area, but had been living rough in the hills and woods for more than two weeks, having been driven out of their homes by Serb forces. Refugees from Kacanik, 10 miles over the border, said that more than 70 houses had been set on fire by Serb police and paramilitaries.

"I ran into the mountains and lived there for 15 days," said Sali Sopo, a motel owner from Urosevac, who said he was singled out for persecution because he had previously let his house to observers from the Organisation of Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). "The soldiers came into the town and said that anyone who helped the OSCE would be killed. I'm lucky to be here alive."

A British member of the OSCE's mission in the Macedonian capital, Skopje, who is in regular contact by satellite telephone with commanders in the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), said their estimates of the number of refugees heading for the border vary from 200,000 to as many as 650,000. He said: "God alone knows what Milosevic's overall plan is, but you can't discount the idea that he's using them as a resource blocking the flow of refugees and then letting people out through the border to hamper the international community, so that everyone's focusing on the refugees rather than, say, a land invasion."

At the nearby Brazde refugee camp, hundreds of children marched around the 2,000 tents, chanting "Nato! Nato!" and, "We will give up our lives, but we will never give up Kosovo!" Brigadier Tim Cross, of the UK Logistics Brigade, said they were looking at ways of expanding the huge camp, which already houses 25,000 people. Plans to hand over administration to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees were under review after the latest reports. "This is a new situation that we're looking at and if we're asked to help, we'll help," said Brigadier Cross.

Meanwhile the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) warned that the forced eviction of farmers would devastate an area which was already suffering from a poor harvest.

"Thousands of farms have been destroyed, left abandoned or untended, whilst food distribution has been constrained due to difficulties in movement," the FAO said in a Special Alert released from its Rome headquarters.

"The food situation ... is expected to deteriorate sharply and the crisis will have profound long-term food security implications."

The executive director of the UN's World Food Programme, Catherine Bertini, visited Brazde yesterday. "There's no question that for the people in Kosovo this is an emergency - an emergency for shelter, an emergency for personal safety and an emergency for food."

Relief at large numbers of refugees being allowed out of Kosovo would be tempered by international concern about the effect of another wave of refugees on the fragile ethnic mix in Macedonia, where an Albanian minority co-exists uneasily with Macedonian Serbs.