War In The Balkans: Relief operation trundles into action

Humanitarian Aid
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The Independent Online
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. The plane will shuttle between various destinations and Albania with more supplies to be distributed by the UNHCR emergency team.

Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development, said yesterday that the situation in Kosovo had deteriorated rapidly over the last 24 hours and it was clear substantial further assistance was needed. UNHCR had sufficient supplies of 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. The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, announced on Monday that Britain was making pounds 10m available 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 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 that are being established by the UNHCR in other parts of the country.

Initial reports that the naval vessel San Marco, which could comfortably carry 2,000 people, would return with a load of refugees, have been dismissed by the Defence Ministry. The vessel 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, yesterday led an Italian delegation visiting the Albanian town of Kukes to see first-hand 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, still closed to civilian traffic, 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 in to effect in May, binds EU members to sharing the social and financial costs of any refugee emergency.