Annan visits refugees in Macedonia
May 19, 1999
STENKOVEC, Macedonia (CNN) -- U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan visited refugee camps in Macedonia Wednesday, getting a firsthand look at the people who have fled Kosovo and their living conditions.
Annan came to Macedonia "in solidarity with the people of Kosovo whose lives have been brutally uprooted and who are now living this nightmare we are all trying to make a little bit easier for them," he said.
Annan's visit came the same day that the human rights group Amnesty International accused the Macedonian government of breaking international law in its treatment of refugees who have fled across its border from Yugoslavia.
"Macedonia is using refugees as a bargaining chip... as political pawns and is breaking international law," said Saul Takahashi, the group's spokesman on refugees.
"Armed Macedonian police officers are harassing and intimidating refugees in the camps and that is completely unacceptable," Takahashi said. "Macedonia does not want the refugees. That message is clear."
Macedonia has pressed hard to reduce the number of refugees it is sheltering, citing fears of economic and political turmoil.
Annan, who met with Macedonian government officials before traveling to the refugee camps along the border, praised the former Yugoslav republic for its efforts to shelter ethnic Albanians fleeing Kosovo.
"The international community should be extremely grateful to the government and people of Macedonia," he said. "We tend to underestimate the contributions of asylum countries."
He said the United Nations was working with the government of Macedonia to provide assistance in supporting the ever-increasing refugee population.
Aid agencies believe that as many as 40,000 refugees are trapped just across the border in Kosovo. Some refugees have reported that they paid Serb police to be allowed to escape.
More than 50,000 refugees have been evacuated from Macedonia to third countries. An elderly ethnic Albanian woman died en route from Europe to a refugee center in New Jersey, a U.S. Army spokesman said. The woman, believed to be in her 80s, died on a flight full of refugees.
The secretary-general is scheduled to visit refugee camps in Kukes, Albania, on Thursday -- where town officials have threatened to shut off water if aid groups do not start moving out 100,000 refugees.
Kukes officials are "basically saying that our water system is being overwhelmed and this can't go on," said Ray Wilkinson, spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Aid groups and Albanian authorities want to move refugees farther away from Albania's unstable border with Yugoslavia, as well as reduce the burden on Kukes' resources. Kukes, only 25 kilometers (15 miles) from the border, had a population of only 30,000 before NATO began bombing Yugoslavia on March 24.
But many of the refugees have stayed at the Kukes camps to be closer to home and to watch the border for family and friends who arrive.
Serb officials say Yugoslavia 'ready to cut a deal'
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