Kosovar refugees stream across border as early aid shipments arrive
Aid arrives for 360,000 who have fled; NATO nations offer asylum
April 5, 1999
Kukes, Albania (CNN) -- Between midnight and 8 a.m. Monday, more than 10,000 exhausted Kosovar refugees streamed across the Albanian border, international aid workers said.
Planes and helicopters carrying food and humanitarian supplies continued to arrive in the Albanian capital of Tirana on Sunday, as countries around the world mobilized to help the human flood of ethnic Albanian refugees forced from their homes in Kosovo.
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokeswoman Karen Abu Zayd said Sunday that since NATO airstrikes on Yugoslavia began on March 24, 360,000 refugees have left Kosovo. Of that number, 204,000 went to Albania, 115,000 to Macedonia and 33,000 to Montenegro.
"We have exceeded our worst-case scenario overnight," she said on CBS's "Face The Nation." "We are looking at perhaps up to a million refugees coming out because they're still streaming out, and all the refugees coming out ... are telling us that the villages behind them are also being emptied."
On Sunday, an international military relief effort got under way in Albania, with NATO countries deploying helicopters, troops and other resources to cope with the humanitarian crisis.
The French army began to rush in food supplies, the Italian army erected a tent city near the Yugoslav border and U.S. forces began building an aircraft landing zone.
The largest refugee movement from Kosovo into Albania took place this weekend. About 21,000 refugees arrived at the Morini crossing point and nearly 10,000 arrived at Qafe Prushit, according to the UNHCR.
The situation in Qafe Prushit, an isolated mountainous area, was described as "desperate" by the UNHCR. Eleven people, including seven children, died there of dehydration and exposure overnight, and relief workers fear more could die in the coming days if rescue operations fail to reach the area.
On the Macedonian border, about 65,000 people were trapped in the freezing rain after being taken to the border by Yugoslav forces and left there, the UNHCR said. The Macedonian government closed the entry point at Blace, forcing thousands of felling Kosovars to head for another nearby crossing point, Jazince.
UNHCR officials reported that the line of refugees waiting to cross the border stretched 25 kilometers (16 miles).
"Our problem in Macedonia is that a lot of people are being kept in a kind of no man's land, not able to move quickly into the country," Zayd said. "It's certainly taking longer than we had hoped it would take."
NATO nations -- including the United States, Turkey and Germany -- are offering temporary asylum to the refugees. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said Sunday that as many as 100,000 displaced Kosovars could be airlifted to other nations.
However, she emphasized that the refugees must be allowed to eventually return to Kosovo under the protection of NATO peacekeepers.
In Tirana on Sunday, three C130 transport planes from Germany and one C17 from the United States arrived, bringing food rations and logistics equipment for distribution by the UNHCR. Also arriving were planes carrying humanitarian aid from France, Saudi Arabia, Britain and Italy.
Julia Taft, U.S. assistant secretary of State for refugees, toured a Macedonian camp Sunday, where international aid workers struggled to distribute plastic sheeting and bread to thousands of people camped in the mud and freezing drizzle, as two Red Cross tents began filling with the sick.
"We will do a burden sharing to temporarily take out of Macedonia large numbers of the refugees for temporary asylum until it is safe for them to go back to their homes in Kosovo," Taft said.
Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit said Sunday that his nation was prepared to shelter 20,000 Kosovo refugees, using extensive stocks of food and tents, held in reserve against a possible repeat of mass migration into the country from the Kurdish regions of northern Iraq.
"This is a humanitarian duty. The Albanians of Kosovo, the Turks, they are our brothers and our relatives," Ecevit said.
The country has deep religious and historical ties to Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority, which is primarily Muslim.
Turkey already has taken in more than 5,000 Kosovo refugees, many of them from the small Turkish minority of the Serbian province, who are staying with relatives in Turkey.
Turkey has strongly backed the NATO airstrikes on Yugoslavia and has contributed fighter jets to the force.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder also said that his country would accept some refugees and would encourage other European Union countries to do the same.
Other countries that have offered to take in refugees include Sweden, Greece, Canada and Norway.
Reports from the Macedonian border on Sunday indicated diarrhea and meningitis were spreading among the refugees.
Tens of thousands huddled in the freezing rain with little more than plastic sheeting as shelter and no toilets or running water, contributing to the spread of disease.
International aid workers said conditions were deteriorating by the hour.
Macedonia has been especially hard hit by the flood of refugees that have streamed into the tiny country by the tens of thousands during the past few days. On Saturday, Macedonia moved to shut its borders to new arrivals.
Interior Minister Pavle Trajanov said that Macedonia's borders were technically still open, but only to refugees en route to other countries.
NATO spokesman Jamie Shea told CNN on Sunday that many more Kosovo Albanians who have been uprooted from their homes are trapped inside the Serbian province without food or shelter.
"There are over a million still trapped inside Kosovo, living in the woods and on mountains ... they have nothing," he said.
Shea also expressed concern about reports of Serb brutality within Kosovo. "Clearly, there have been atrocities going on," he said.
Some of the refugees arriving in Albania have given detailed reports of atrocities which they say are being carried out by Serbs on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
The BBC received an amateur videotape Saturday of what the cameraman said was evidence of mass killings by Serb forces in Kosovo.
Correspondent Christiane Amanpour contributed to this report.
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