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Yugoslavia: Kosovo Refugees' Fate Rouses Growing Concern

Prague, 22 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Concern deepened yesterday over the fate of Kosovar refugees and displaced persons. For a second day, only a few ethnic Albanians trickled through official border crossings from Kosovo, prompting concern that Serb forces have again turned back thousands of people who were trying to flee.

At the same time, some 2,500 ethnic Albanians -- a record number for one day -- crossed into Albania from Montenegro.

The UN refugee agency says the large number of refugees leaving Montenegro follows the shooting deaths on Monday of six people -- some of them Kosovo refugees -- by Serb army reservists in a village near Montenegro's internal border with Serbia.

UNHCR spokeswoman Judith Kumin says the shooting was an isolated incident and that the reservists were reportedly drunk. Kumin says the shooting, combined with the increased presence of the Yugoslav army, has made ethnic Albanians as well as local Muslims leave in panic.

"It seems the shooting was an isolated incident by intoxicated residents but this created a panic in the area and seems to be what caused the movement out of the area. At the same time, the presence of the Yugoslav army in the area and military police is making people nervous and so there is a high level of tension in the area."

It's less clear what has happened to tens of thousands of refugees who were reported headed to the borders of Albania and Macedonia. The UNHCR estimates anywhere from 500,000 to 800,000 ethnic Albanians are still in the province.

Kumin says Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic controls their flow out of Kosovo like a tap, first herding people toward the border in large groups and then turning them back.

"In general, it seems the Yugoslav authorities can turn the flow on and off, and for the time being it's mainly off. It's clear there were many people who wanted to flee into neighboring countries, they were turned back by the Yugoslav authorities, now they're not on the roads to the borders, we don't know where they are, we don't know what's happened and we're very worried about that."

Kumin would not comment on Milosevic's motives. But NATO has speculated that Serbian forces are rounding up hundreds of thousands of refugees and preparing to drive them across the border in huge groups, to try to destabilize neighboring countries.

Those who have made it over the border have told international investigators horrifying stories of systematic human rights violations in Kosovo. The OSCE yesterday its human rights experts have interviewed more than 300 refugees in Macedonia.

Sandy Blythe is a spokesman for the OSCE's Kosovo Verification Mission. He says the refugees consistently paint a picture of virtual lawlessness in the province.

"We have detailed stories which basically include assaults, pillage, shelling of villages and individual killings and executions, killings of smaller groups of people in twos and threes, verbal and physical harassment, robbery, right up to sexual assaults."

Blythe says none of the stories can be completely verified until an international force is allowed to return to Kosovo. But he says the statements are thought to be credible for several reasons. They were taken systematically, in the same way as police interviews. The stories are consistently repeated. And international verifiers saw similar incidents in Kosovo before they were forced out of the province.

"We are obviously not saying we take as gospel every single statement we take from refugees. What we are saying is that in our opinion there is a high credibility factor to these statements."

Blythe said the interviews are continuing. The evidence will be given to the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

Meanwhile, relief agencies are scrambling to expand their facilities to handle the anticipated next flood of refugees.

The UNHCR said yesterday it's now planning to look after 950,000 refugees. There are already nearly 600,000 refugees in countries neighboring Kosovo and the camps in Macedonia and Albania are full.

Albania has agreed to take as many refugees as arrive, and UNHCR spokeswoman Kumin says soldiers there are working quickly to build more camps and improve infrastructure. However, she says aid workers' ability to help people headed for Macedonia depends on whether the government can muster the political will to make room for even more ethnic Albanians.

In the meantime, the UNHCR has issued another appeal for money to help support the refugees. It has also urged European countries to make good on promises to provide temporary shelter in their own countries for the Kosovars. The countries had promised to take 80,000 people. So far, just 17,000 have been airlifted out of the Balkans and into a new safe haven.