Desperate refugees flee Kosovo, accuse Serbs of atrocities
March 30, 1999
KUKES, Albania (CNN) -- Cramped in cold, crowded buses, trucks and tractor-hauled carts, tens of thousands of Kosovo Albanians lumbered up zigzagging mountain roads Monday to escape alleged Serb atrocities in their homeland. But after an exhausting, hours-long journey of desperation, many found their quest for safety had only begun.
A steady stream of refugees crossed into neighboring Albania, Macedonia and the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro on Monday, in some places at a pace of 4,000 people an hour. They brought with them horrific stories of brutality: tales of families forced to flee at gunpoint by Serb police, of ethnic Albanian homes set ablaze, of widespread executions of prominent activists.
"I saw kids crying, I saw images of burning houses everywhere, desperate people scared, crying, running. It was a total mess," said one man after reaching the Montenegrin border.
An onslaught of between 80,000 and 100,000 refugees has swamped Albania alone since NATO launched its air campaign against Yugoslavia on Wednesday, said Emma Bonino, the European Union's humanitarian affairs commissioner.
The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates at least another 90,000 displaced Kosovo Albanians are "on the road" to Albania.
About 4,000 refugees already have fled to Bosnia-Herzegovina and another 1,000 ethnic Albanian refugees crossed the border into Macedonia on Monday, saying they were forced to leave their homes because of harassment.
Aid agencies ask for food
Albania appealed to the international community for help in coping with the influx of refugees into one of Europe's poorest nations. The government has sent hundreds of buses and private cars to the small town of Kukes to take more refugees away from the border.
Townspeople in Kukes have put up about 5,000 people in private homes, while another 5,000 have been given shelter in empty warehouses, where the local Red Cross fed them cookies and water.
Many of the refugees will face another journey to be resettled in other parts of Albania.
Jacques Franquin of the UNHCR said his organization has a plan for Albania to cope with up to 150,000 refugees, but they are hampered because there are only five international staff in place.
"We are having difficulty shipping material," Franquin said, adding that food supplies are urgently needed. "We have a stock of food for 5-6 days," he said.
Refugees: Serb forces terrorizing Kosovars
Those who made it across the border told CNN's Chris Burns that Serb authorities in Yugoslavia made them hand over documents and car license plates, suggesting that they will not be allowed back into Yugoslavia.
"They came to our homes and told us, 'Get out! Get out!" a young refugee told CNN, saying the clothes her family was wearing were all they were allowed to take with them.
A man from Kosovo's second-largest city, Prizren, told Burns he saw Serb troops kill 27 people, including women and children.
NATO said Monday it had reports of executions of leading ethnic Albanian leaders, including Fehmi Agani, a delegate who had participated at recent international Kosovo peace talks in France.
A self-declared member of the Kosovo Liberation Army told CNN in a telephone interview that the Serb crackdown in Kosovo was continuing Monday, including in the provincial capital Pristina. He said he knows of more than 30 villages that have been burned to the ground.
Serb leaders deny any such campaign is going on in Kosovo.
NATO, however, said it is gathering evidence of genocide to present to the International War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague, Netherlands.
"We have the impression from the current sweep of operations of the Yugoslav forces in Kosovo that there is a campaign under way to ethnically re-engineer the makeup of Kosovo ... to reshape the political map of Kosovo so that (Yugoslav President Slobodan) Milosevic would later on hope to achieve a negotiated solution more favorable to Belgrade," said NATO spokesman Jamie Shea.
U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin said reports of killings and mass expulsions of Kosovo Albanians "continue to accumulate" and are "credible."
He accused the Serbs of "abhorrent and criminal action on a maximum scale" and he detailed reports of executions of ethnic Albanian schoolteachers, a negotiator, an editor and hundreds of unarmed civilians.
Macedonia calls for help
Macedonia, which has accepted about 7,000 Kosovo refugees in the last five days, has appealed for international economic aid. Long lines of refugees built up at the border between Kosovo and Macedonia, and several said they were forced out as part of a wider plan of ethnic cleansing.
The situation in Macedonia is "pretty organized, pretty much under control," according to U.N. officials.
But in Montenegro, where there is no UNHCR presence, leaders fear the flood of some 20,000 ethnic Albanians could destabilize the republic. Montenegro's pro-Western government has distanced itself from Milosevic's policies on Kosovo, but it has appealed to NATO to stop its airstrikes.
"Our situation is getting to be very difficult," said Montenegro's foreign minister, Branco Perovic.
NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana said Monday that the military alliance, the UNHCR office and the European Union were coordinating aid efforts for refugees.
EU officials said Monday they were earmarking $16 million more in aid. And an upcoming international donor conference was expected to further address the aid situation.
"The picture that is emerging is very grim. There appears to be a policy of expulsions of ethnic Albanians," said UNHCR spokesman Chris Janowski in Geneva.
Janowski said there was still "plenty of fighting" which was pushing more people out of Kosovo province, where NATO forces have been bombing Serb military targets in what the alliance says is an effort to bring a halt to the attacks on ethnic Albanians.
Correspondents Chris Burns, Mike Hanna and Andrea Koppel contributed to this report.
Pentagon: NATO making progress, but campaign will take time
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