War in the Balkans: Where are the missing 30,000? The world wants to know

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The Independent Online
THE WORLD was looking for 30,000 missing refugees from Kosovo yesterday, after the Macedonian authorities evacuated at least 50,000 of them from the makeshift camp at Blace on its northern border.

While some of the refugees in Macedonia were taken to transit camps set up around the capital, Skopje, and about 14,000 were reported to have been bused to the town of Korce, in Albania, the whereabouts of tens of thousands of them is still uncertain. "We cannot account for about 30,000 people," said Paula Ghebini aspokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Nato and aid agencies said they feared for the safety of tens of thousands of other refugees from Kosovo, who were waiting on Yugoslavia's frontier with Albania, who were herded back into Kosovo by Serb troops early yesterday morning.

The lightning speed of the Macedonian operation, which took place between 8pm on Tuesday night and 2am yesterday morning, local time, took everyone by surprise. A British military vehicle is understood to have trailed the convoy of 119 buses as it headedthrough the mountains of western Macedonia to the Albanian border crossing at Pogradec.

The UNHCR said the Macedonian authorities refused to say where the people had been taken. "We still don't know how many went where," said an UNHCR spokeswoman. "Some complained they had no idea where they were going and they were being separated from their families."

Last night the refugees who had been taken to Albania were reported to have been deposited in Korce's sports stadium. There were unconfirmed reports of others heading for Greece and Turkey

Armed Macedonian police and soldiers rounded up the refugees at Blace and led them on to buses. "It was very quick," said Sheri Fink, a medic with the aid group Physicians for Human Rights, who saw the evacuation. "None of the people knew where they were going. There was no one from the international community to see what was happening."

Nicola Boyle, a medical coordinator with the International Medical Corps, said there was no resistance: "People were too exhausted to ask where they were going. They were like zombies."

There were tragic scenes as the very old and the sick found themselves abandoned in the virtually deserted camp, after their children had been forced on to the buses. Azize Marina, 70, from the Kosovo capital, Pristina, said she was too weak to stand up. She had come to the border with her son and now he had been taken away.

"I would rather die than be here," she said. "In fact I am already dead. My son has gone, my daughters have gone too and so has my 13-year-old grandson. He is blind and deaf. What has happened to him I dare not think."

There were strong suspicions that the Macedonians had coordinated their move with neighbouring Yugoslavia.

Belgrade closed the frontiers with Macedonia and Albania just as the Blace camp was being emptied and forced thousands of refugees waiting at the Yugoslav-Albanian border crossing at Morini back into Kosovo. Like their fellow Slavs in Serbia, the Macedonians have no love for their Albanian minority and they have no wish to see it numerically boosted by an influx from Kosovo.

At Morini yesterday a sinister silence enveloped the border post. The only things left moving were plastic water bottles and other debris blowing about in the wind. Avni Brahimi, who crossed just before the border closed, lost track of his relatives when they were sent back into Kosovo by Yugoslav border guards. "The Serb soldiers sent back all the people," he said. "They just forced the people to turn around."

A total mystery surrounds the fate of the thousands of Kosovar Albanians who had lined up along the road from the western city of Prizren to Morini. On Tuesday, the queue of at least 20,000 people had stretched some 18 miles back into Kosovo.

One group of 25 people who succeeded in crossing at 5am, long after the border appeared to have closed, said the route they travelled on was deserted. "They did not see any people," said a UNHCR spokesman, Jacques Franquin. "They saw a lot of cars and tractors but in terms of people, nobody." Nato and aid agencies said they feared for the refugees's safety. "Apparently the Serbs want to keep them - to do what?" asked Mr Franquin.

"The Serbs have more or less destroyed all their villages, and I don't think they are planning to build a Inter-Continental Hotels to house them."