War In The Balkans: Where there's a will, there isn't always a way

Relief Logistics
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THE ILYUSHIN cargo plane was brimful with tents, blankets and other equipment needed to save the lives of thousands of Kosovo refugees - but there was no fuel to get its 38 tons of aid off the runway.

"It's infuriating. We have all this to give to the people freezing in Macedonia, but we simply can't get it there," said John, the man in charge of delivering the aid.

The flight, laid on by the Department for International Development, had landed at Tirana airport shortly before 1pm local time yesterday. Two aid workers from the department and a six-man Latvian crew were waiting to refuel to go on to Skopje when they were told there was no aviation fuel.

Stranded on the asphalt in Tirana, it appeared that while Nato could land a cruise missile on a 40ft-wide bridge from 200 miles away, no one else in the West had the foresight toprovide enough fuel for a single British aid aircraft.

Other aircraft from as far afield as Saudi Arabia and the Czech Republic touched down at the city's small airport to disgorge their cargoes of food, tents and bedding. Each flight appeared to be accompanied by that country's media: everyone, it seemed, wanted to be seen to be doing their bit.

But good intentions are not the problem. What seems to be in dangerously short supply is the logistical planning that will enable this aid to get to where it is needed. Our flight was a case in point. It left from a Kent airfield bound for Macedonia.

Frustration almost boiled over into anger when it emerged that the 10 tons of aviation fuel we so desperately needed to reach our destination were unavailable. "The airport cannot afford to keep large supplies of fuel, so when all these large planes arrive there is nothing they can do," said a representative for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The Ilyushin flight crew may have had clear advice that they could refuel at Tirana, but the episode provided an insight into how Western agencies would have to rethink their approach.

Countries such as Albania, where even the best roads are little more than pot-holed tracks, simply do not have the infrastructure to deal with the influx of planes, people and cargo that have been forced on them. "The manager at the airport is doing his best to cope but things are largely out of his hands," said one aid worker.

"He doesn't have any control on what planes are coming in and out of here. He can hardly turn them away - but it is getting out of control."

To deal with the lack of clear planning on the ground, the British flights this weekend included teams of assessors from the department's emergency logistics team. It will be their job to find out exactly what is needed in terms of aid and how best to deliver it.

The Secretary of State, Clare Short, who touched down in her ministerial jet in Tirana yesterday morning for two hours of talks, had only to look from her window at the stranded Ilyushin her department had chartered to realise that her staff will need to act quickly before this crisis deteriorates further still.