NATO: Kosovo on brink of 'major humanitarian disaster'
Yugoslav official denies ethnic cleansing
March 28, 1999
"Whether we like it or not, we have to recognize that we are on the brink of a major humanitarian disaster in Kosovo, the likes of which have not been seen in Europe since the closing stages of World War II," NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said.
One Kosovo official estimated the number of displaced could exceed 1 million. Serbians "are continuing their policy of ethnic cleansing on a grand scale," Bajram Gecha of the Kosovo Crisis Committee told CNN on Sunday.
Refugees pouring into border states Sunday gave repeated accounts of Serb atrocities against ethnic Albanians.
Shea expressed concern that the majority of refugees are women and children. "What happened to the males between the ages of 16 and 60?" he asked.
U.S. officials think the answer could be what they call "very persuasive" accounts of summary executions of military-age men by Serbian forces.
Kosovo Liberation Army representative Hasim Thaqi also detailed allegations of mass killings and abductions, including one in which 22 teachers were hanged in front of their students. "There are concentration camps in Kosovo now," he told CNN on Sunday.
None of the reports could be independently confirmed, as Yugoslavia has closed the Kosovo borders to Western journalists.
Yet Kosovars escaping from the city of Pec into nearby Montenegro also said Serbians had committed mass executions in the streets, taken many people away in covered trucks to undisclosed locations, and moved into the houses from which they evicted ethnic Albanians, eyewitnesses told CNN.
That Serbians have reportedly subjected a city the size of Pec, with about 90,000 inhabitants, instead of smaller villages to such efforts suggests they have an organized plan for the removal of ethnic Albanians, some Kosovars told CNN.
Refugees heading into Albania gave similar accounts of violence and terror. Albania is ill-equipped to handle the influx of thousands of people. As many as 20,000 are expected Monday.
"Fortunately, I thank God, I saved my 15-year-old son," said Fehmije Haxhiolli, who escaped into Albania with an extended family of 30. "I put a dress on him and a shawl, and the Serbs thought he was a woman."
Haxhiolli said the Serbs told the family they would be shot if they were still in Kosovo the following morning.
U.N. officials characterize the situation in Albania and other economically poor border states as desperate, predicting the current steady flow of refugees could turn into a massive flood.
A top Yugoslavian official denied that his country is committing an ethnic cleansing.
"We need the Albanians in our state," Deputy Prime Minister Vuk Draskovic told CNN. He insisted Kosovo rebels provoked Serbian attacks, and gave a long list of what he said were historic Albanian transgressions against Serbians.
"Who committed genocide against whom?" he asked.
The Yugoslav army and Serbian special police forces were pursuing ethnic Albanians relentlessly, NATO said, chasing them from their homes before burning houses to the ground.
Ethnic Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova was believed to be in hiding, U.S. officials said.
The Serbs' attacks have worsened, NATO said, since the advent of bombings earlier this week. NATO's campaign was launched to try to force Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to sign a peace agreement that would stop the conflict between the Serbs and ethnic Albanians who make up the majority of the Kosovo province.
NATO said its bombing campaign would continue in an effort to stop "genocidal" attacks, and said it was collecting evidence for use in possible war crimes prosecutions in the future.
"We're collecting information on Serbian security forces," said British Defense Secretary George Robertson. "Those carrying out acts are committing war crimes. Those in authority can also be brought to justice."
NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said Sunday that NATO had received reports that a notorious Serbian paramilitary force known as the Tigers, linked to atrocities in Serbian campaigns in Bosnia some years ago, is operating in Kosovo.
But Zeljko Raznjatovic, the leader of the group, denied NATO's allegation that he was in the war-torn province.
"I am here in Belgrade," said Raznjatovic, otherwise known as Arkan, in an interview with Reuters television Sunday.
Kosovars flee region as NATO strikes enter Day 5
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