Brussels, 29 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said yesterday that Kosovo is on the brink of a major humanitarian disaster, the like of which has not been seen in Europe since the closing stages of World War Two.
He told a news briefing at NATO's headquarters in Brussels that Serb forces in the province are carrying out a "scorched earth" policy by burning villages, looting properties and separating ethnic Albanian families in a bid to drive people out.
Speaking after a fourth night of NATO air strikes at military and other targets in Serbia, including Kosovo, he said President Slobodan Milosevic's regime has systematically planned what British Defense Secretary George Robertson earlier called a campaign of "genocide" against the ethnic Albanian majority in the south Serb province.
Shea compared the drive against Albanian civilians by Serb military, police and paramilitary forces to the ethnic cleansing that occurred in Srebrenica, Bosnia.
Shea said: "A tragedy on this scale can only happen because it has been systematically planned, organized and executed by the government" of Milosevic.
Shea said the drive against Albanian civilians -- who comprise 90 percent of the Kosovo population -- began a long time before the 19 NATO allies resolved to launch air strikes in a bid to stop the humanitarian crisis and to prevent the conflict spreading.
Shea said what he called "a truly horrible" situation was unfolding in Kosovo.
He said the NATO allies are concerned about the security and stability of neighboring countries, including Albania and Macedonia, because a wave of ethnic Albanians are being forced towards their borders by Serb forces.
NATO Secretary General Javier Solana talked yesterday with the prime ministers of Albania and Macedonia about the situation in and around Kosovo.
Shea said Solana has also written to neighboring countries that are members of NATO's Partnership for Peace program, assuring them that the alliance will "not be indifferent to any threat to their security."
Air commodore David Wilby, of NATO's Shape headquarters, said Serb forces are "engaged in a whole-scale cleansing of Albanian populations in wide areas and even in areas outside Kosovo." He said there are reports of men being separated from their families and executed, and of attempts by Serb forces to create a "sterile buffer zone" by moving populations out of a 16 km strip on the Kosovo-Albanian border.
Shea said the number of ethnic Albanians displaced from their homes has risen to over half a million, or more than a quarter of the population. He said the number is increasingly rapidly, with 50,000 uprooted and seeking shelter in the past few days.
He spoke of reports of 20,000 people fleeing from fighting in the north central area of Kosovo, and seeking refuge in Albania. The Albanian government has accepted 8,000 to 10,000 refugees in the past few days. Some 18,500 refugees are in Macedonia.
Shea said many other refugees are at the border where reports indicate they are being stripped of their identity documents and possessions, while their car number plates are being confiscated by Serb police. This, said Shea, suggested that it is the policy of Yugoslav authorities to "make it difficult for these people to come back."
He said a majority of the refugees are women and children. He said NATO governments want to know what has happened to the missing men aged 16 to 60.
Shea said Milosevic is "trying to destabilize the entire area" by creating a new situation on the ground while trying to provoke outflows of refugees into neighboring countries which are not equipped to cope with the influx.
Shea said NATO is concerned about reported "sweep" operations by Yugoslav army and special police in pursuit of a scorched earth policy. He added: "There is now a systematic campaign against the Kosovar Albanian population at large."
He said NATO is receiving reports of ethnic cleansing in a number of areas, including reports of attempts to empty northern Kosovo of its population, and the burning of entire villages in the south along the border with Macedonia.
He said there are disturbing reports that the Yugoslav military forces have been joined by Serbian paramilitary units, such as the Tigers of irregular leader, Arcan, notorious for human rights abuses in Bosnia a few years ago.
Shea said a deliberate attempt is going on to target political and intellectual leaders in the Kosovar Albanian community. Shea said NATO has received reports of the killings of a prominent lawyer and his two sons, of 20 teachers, and of trade unionists. He said many journalists have gone to ground and are now in hiding.
He said NATO countries are gathering evidence of atrocities, not only by "those who are pulling the trigger" but also by those who are giving the orders.
He repeated a warning that evidence of war crimes will be sent to the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague which has a mandate to pursue alleged war criminals in former Yugoslavia, including Kosovo. He said he was certain that many of those committing crimes against humanity will eventually be indicted.
He said any attempt to attribute the ethnic cleansing of the Albanian population to NATO's decision to launch air strikes is "perverse."
Because of the deteriorating situation on the ground, Solana decided yesterday, after consultations with the allied governments, to initiate what Shea called a "broader spectrum of air operations" aimed at Serb military targets. NATO officials say the air strikes are not aimed at civilians, and great care is being taken not to shed innocent blood.
A total of 66 NATO aircraft flew 257 sorties overnight on 17 major military targets, but the operation was hampered by poor weather. NATO lost its first warplane of Operation Allied Forces which crashed north of Belgrade. But a NATO team rescued the pilot who is now recovering in Italy. NATO officials repeated yesterday that the alliance has no plans to launch ground operations in Kosovo, but plans to step up attacks on Serb tanks, military headquarters and other targets after degrading air defense facilities.