Mr Thaci, head of the self-styled "government" proclaimed by the Kosovo Liberation Army, made his first visit to this frontier town housing nearly 100,000 refugees from Kosovo's violence.
"We didn't leave our homes. The Serbs ordered us to leave," Thaci told cheering crowds at a camp. "Today we are not alone in our fight. The whole world is helping us win our freedom."
In a plan not encouraged by the KLA, an organised, international effort was to begin today to move the refugees south to better and safer camps. The Kukes camps are within Serbian artillery range.
Nato trucks were to take the first batch of 200 refugees, with movement of 500 a day planned for coming weeks, said Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
The flow of refugees into Kukes from Kosovo is continuing. By midday yesterday, more than 1,000 ethnic Albanians, mostly women and children, had crossed the border, the UNHCR reported, and 1,000 others in the previous two days.
"For the first time, malnutrition has been diagnosed among the refugees," said Susan Manuel, a spokeswoman for the World Food Program. The "moderate malnutrition" was found among some of nearly 1,000 men who had been detained by Serb security forces, then inexplicably released from a prison near the northern Kosovo town of Kosovska Mitrovica. Several told of beatings and of being used as human shields in a Serbian attack against a KLA position.
After repeated Serbian drives against the rebels, most ananlysts believe the KLA has only a couple thousand seasoned fighters in the field, although the force appears to be attracting many recruits. They use mainly assault rifles, against Serbian tanks, artillery and heavy machine-guns.
"We are now reorganised," Thaci said after touring two camps. "We are a better, more efficient force."
A Pentagon spokesman, Kenneth Bacon, said in the past week that the KLA was "getting stronger and stronger." He said the guerrillas were attacking Yugoslav forces, holding towns and capturing some weaponry.
The KLA recruits its guerrillas from abroad and from the local refugee population, and Mr Thaci did not show enthusiasm when asked about the southward move from Kukes, which hosts the largest concentration of Kosovo refugees in the region.
"It is useful if they are close to the border, but for us there is little difference between north and south. Important are the living conditions," he said.
Most refugees say they would prefer staying in Kukes, which is nearer their homeland, and aid officials say there will be no forced relocations.
"We are not trying to force them," said a Nato spokesman, Lieutenant- Colonel Helge Eriksen. "These people have seen enough violence in Kosovo. They should be treated with respect."
At the refugee camps, welcoming placards read "NATO and UCK equals victory," and children chanted "UCK, UCK" in unison as Mr Thaci arrived. UCK are the Albanian initials for the KLA.
Accompanying Mr Thaci, who also calls himself the prime minister of Kosovo, was the Albanian Deputy Prime Minister Illir Meta, who threw his support behind the KLA.
"I am here to tell the Kosovo people that we will help you win your freedom," he told the refugees through a loudspeaker. "You are not alone in your fight. The Albanian government is with you. Our government puts its hope in the KLA."
Hamdi Ademi, 65, cradling his 10-year-old grandson as he listened to Mr Thaci address the crowd at a camp run by Doctors Without Borders, said: "He is a good man. We hope he will win us our freedom."
Ademi said he and family members were driven from their home by Serbian police in the town of Metrenice five weeks ago. APReuse content