War In The Balkans: The Aid Crisis - West failing to keep up with relief

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THE WEST admitted yesterday it was failing to deal with the "catastrophic situation" created by the human tide of refugees flooding out of Kosovo.

More than 230,000 Kosovar Albanians have either fled or been forced from their homes since Nato bombing started a little over a week ago. Added to the 290,000 who left before the bombing began, it means that a quarter of the ethnic Albanian population has left the province.

Fleeing the savagery of the Serbs, they hoped for refuge across the borders. Instead they have encountered chaos and aggression.

This week a series of shipments of aid from Britain will be on its way to the refugees in Albania and Macedonia. Food, medical supplies, water purification equipment and makeshift shelters are among the cargoes that Western aid agencies have prepared for the refugees. The problem facing the international community is how to get this aid to the people who need it. Confronted by poor transport infrastructure and, in the case of Macedonia, an increasingly unsympathetic government, aid is not getting through to where it is needed.

With another 30,000 refugees expected to leave Kosovo in the next few days, the situation threatens to get worse rather than better. Experts said yesterday that the next 24 hours would be crucial.

Lyndall Sachs, spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said: "The situation on the ground is catastrophic when you consider the number of people, the psychological trauma they have endured, the fact that they have nothing.

"When I see the pictures [of refugees being forced onto cramped trains] there is a horrible symmetry to what was happening 50 years ago."

Many agencies had stockpiled supplies throughout last year in the Balkans in anticipation of problems in Kosovo. None expected they would confront such a huge number of people within such a short space of time.

"Hindsight is a great thing," Ms Sachs said. "No one thought that a dictator could force so many people out of a country in just a couple of days."

The bulk of the refugees - more than 120,000 - have entered Albania while Macedonia has received 70,000 and Montenegro 30,000 refugees. A further 7,500 people have entered Bosnia. Macedonia, where the dominant Slavs have strong ethnic and religious ties to the Serbs, has said it can no longer cope with any more refugees and has appealed for international help.

Oxfam yesterday sent two 20-tonne flights of water and sanitation equipment - one to Macedonia and one to Albania.

"The people who have left their homes have travelled with virtually nothing," said an Oxfam spokeswoman. "There is a great anger that in these circumstances they can fall prey to disease. Each of our flights will enable 75,000 people to have access to clean water."

She also said that more flights were planned for later in the week.

Other agencies have been concentrating on providing food. "We have sent 22,500 food parcels by truck from Greece," said Catherine Mahone, a spokeswoman for the International Red Cross. "Each package will feed a family of four for a week. They contain the basic things." Action Against Hunger, a charity, has also been providing food, supplying hot meals for refugees entering Macedonia. An RAF Hercules flew out blankets and plastic sheeting yesterday morning. A further three Ministry of Defence flights are planned for next week.

Thousands of people stranded on the Macedonian border are still sleeping in the open air and officials have said it is vital that these people are provided with some sort of shelter. The log jam of people at the borders has been exacerbated by the problem that many have been stripped of all identification by the Serbs.

"We are concentrating on providing money to pay for busses and trucks to get people away from the Albanian border and into the larger towns and cities," said Fiona Fox of the agency Cafod.

Many of the British agencies are operating under an umbrella organisation, the Disasters Emergency Committee. The body will launch a united appeal for all its member agencies next week.