Report: 400,000 homeless Kosovars hiding in province
April 11, 1999
LONDON (CNN) -- As international relief efforts improve conditions for refugees who have fled Kosovo, new word came Sunday of hundreds of thousands of homeless Kosovars hiding in the Serbian province.
British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said the Kosovo Liberation Army reported that as many as 400,000 ethnic Albanians may be camped in the mountains and forests "and the weather is currently against them. It is snowing today in western Kosovo."
Cook, citing an official of the ethnic Albanian KLA, said the refugees are hiding from Serb-led Yugoslav forces "who would otherwise kill or deport them."
Hashim Thaci, the political representative of the KLA now in Kosovo, described the situation of the displaced Kosovars as "very serious," Cook said.
"In his words, they lack the basic elements of life and are particularly short of food," Cook said.
NATO officials in Brussels displayed aerial photographs Sunday of what they said may be mass graves in the Kosovar town of Orahovac, near the provincial capital of Pristina.
While only an excavation of the site will determine the situation for certain, the photographs are similar to photos of mass graves taken in Bosnia during that country's civil war, NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said.
In addition to those displaced within Kosovo, estimates for the number of people who have left the province now top 500,000. The bulk of those have gone to neighboring Albania and Macedonia, where international aid agencies are grappling with the flow of refugees.
A top humanitarian official said there was "no question" that atrocities, including mass rape and killings, were being committed in Kosovo by Serb forces.
Brian Atwood, the U.S. coordinator for Kosovo relief, said one reason Yugoslavia closed off its borders earlier last week was to prevent more stories of atrocities leaking into the international media.
Vladislav Jovanovic, the Yugoslav charge d'affaires at the United Nations, vehemently denied those reports Sunday.
"That kind of accusation, together with similar other accusations is a part of NATO aggressors to hide the illegality and barbarity of their own devastation on one small and innocent people," Jovanovic told CNN.
But Atwood said ethnic Albanians massed at the were being turned back and used as shields against NATO missiles.
"We have seen evidence of tank columns moving along the road, with refugees walking on both sides of the tanks," he said. "There is no question they are being used for human shields."
NATO governments have warned that any evidence of war crimes will be turned over to an international tribunal.
More than 29 countries are contributing to the Kosovo refugee relief efforts, according to NATO.
Karen Robbins, a spokeswoman for the U.S.-based humanitarian relief group CARE, said conditions have improved greatly from the "absolutely abysmal" scenes early in the refugee crisis.
"We are in the process of getting (the refugees) registered, getting them adequate shelter in tents and other housing and making sure they can be reunited with their families," Robbins said.
Families in Albania and Macedonia have offered temporary shelter to some of the refugees, as have several NATO countries. But most of the Kosovars do not want to resettle in other nations, Robbins said.
"Pretty much all of them expressed a strong desire to go home when it is safe to do so," she said.
Crews from NATO countries "are in overdrive" to haul relief supplies to those countries, NATO military spokesman Col. Konrad Freytag said Sunday. NATO flights have delivered more than 6,300 tons of food, medicine and tents to Macedonia and Albania, he said.
About 4,000 more refugees crossed into Albania from Yugoslavia on Sunday, Shea said. The country has become a nexus for allied relief efforts, and Albanian officials have turned over control of their ports and airspace to NATO.
NATO: Aerial photo may show mass graves in Kosovo
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