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Yugoslavia: Greeks Await Refugee Influx

By Tito Singh

Athens, 26 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Most NATO member states are expressing support for the alliance's airstrikes against Yugoslavia, launched last night. But our correspondent in Athens reports that the mood in NATO-member Greece is largely critical.

In Greece yesterday, even as the country celebrated a national holiday marking the independence gained from Turkey last century, many Greeks were glued to their television sets following reports of NATO action. News of airstrikes increased a widespread nervousness.

Greece's border regions are already prepared for a large flow of refugees from Kosovo, who have already started to trickle in. In the northern Greek city of Kilkis, a mere three-hour drive from Kosovo, Deputy Minister of Interior George Florides said yesterday that Athens has taken all necessary preparatory measures for receiving a potentially large wave of refugees from Kosovo. The Ministry has organized reception centers for the refugees, while health agencies and hospitals are also on alert.

In the northern Greek regions of Macedonia and Thrace, local officials as well as the tourist and business community have expressed concern about the fallout on the regions' economies. A high regional official in the northern city of Pieria, George Papastergiou, said flatly: "The Kosovo problem will bring us to our knees."

Greek Defense Minister Akis Tsochatzopoulos, who cut short a visit to London, stated yesterday that the country has the ability to guarantee peace, stability and security in the overall region. He said: "We are going through tough days, watching the conflict and military acts in the neighboring country, Serbia. This matter demands from us to seek an immediate start of a political dialogue."

Athens has also launched an official protest over remarks made by U.S. President Bill Clinton earlier this week about the Kosovo conflict. Clinton was quoted as saying: "NATO members Greece and Turkey could be dragged into a wider Balkan conflict."

In a written statement, the Greek Foreign Ministry declared: "Tensions between Greece and Turkey are not a recent phenomenon and cannot be connected to the crisis, certainly not by those who know the region."

NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana yesterday downplayed differences between Athens and other NATO members. Asked at a Brussels press conference about the comments coming out of Athens, Solana said there is full unity within the Alliance over the air strikes.

For the average Greek citizen, perhaps the most important declaration on the crisis came from the Archbishop of Athens and All of Greece, Christodoulos, who stated that the world's powers "have opened a Pandora's box."

He added: "This is a brutal violation of the grand ideals and principles which support democracy, freedom and human rights... Problems cannot be resolved through violence and arms, but only through understanding." Christodoulos said he fealt "shame" for what he said was NATO's "turning against ...the Orthodox Christian Serb people, to whom I declare my support."

Greek Communist Party secretary Aleka Papariga was quoted by the Macedonian Press Agency as saying that this week's events have been expected since 1991, when the Yugoslav Federation broke up. He said that both the EU and the U.S. are seeking to re-divide the Balkans.