48,000 return to Kosovo in just one day dayRefugees return home to land of

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The Independent Online
A VAST unstoppable tide of people is returning to Kosovo. Officials said more than 48,000 refugees who had been forced from their homes over the past three months had returned yesterday to their ravaged homes and farms.

They are returning to an increasingly lawless country with gangs of returning Albanians looting and pillaging the homes of the Serb population - many of whom have fled through fear of revenge attacks.

Although K-For troops have confiscated thousands of weapons, many Serbs and Albanians are still armed. At least 14 Kosovo civilians were killed in Pristina - a city of less than 100,000 at the moment - during the most violent 24 hour-hour period since Nato troops moved in to the region two weeks ago.

Maj-Gen Richard Dannatt said extra patrols were being mounted to deal with looting within the city. "There is a lot of looting. It seems to have become endemic. We can't be everywhere at one time."

Criminal cases are being dealt with by the Royal Military Police, which have opened a detention centre.

More than 300,000 Kosovar refugees have returned in the 10 days since Nato troops set foot in the province.

"This is one of the largest spontaneous returns that we have ever seen in the last 25 years of any operation," said Paula Ghedini, spokeswoman for UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency.

There were also signs that yesterday's wave of arrivals could be even larger.

According to Ms Ghedini, 25,000 Kosovar refugees have returned home from Albania, 19,000 from Macedonia and 4,500 from Montenegro. Next week UNHCR will begin its official operation to bring back refugees from camps in Macedonia and Albania.

Tomorrow a number of refugees will be brought back from the camp at Blace, on the Macedonian border, by train - the line having been reopened for the first time since Nato forces entered Kosovo.

Officials in Pristina are warning, however, that the returning refugees bring with them many problems.

Pristina is still a city with few resources and the UNHCR said it was having to supply food, shelter and clothes to those refugees forced from their home with just the possessions they could carry.

An estimated further 300,000 refugees are yet to come back to Kosovo. The refugees will create additional difficulties for K-For troops trying to bring security to Pristina.

t Yugoslav authorities yesterday released 166 detainees who had been held in Serbia, said the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). "The men were given into the care of the ICRC, which transported them back to Kosovo," it said.