By Joel Blocker and Kitty McKinsey
Prague, 30 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Forced out of their homes by Serbian police, army and paramilitary units, ethnic Albanians continued to flee Kosovo in the thousands in what a spokesman for the United Nations refugee organization calls a humanitarian disaster.
Speaking from Geneva, UN High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman Kris Janowski told RFE/RL in a telephone interview that it is virtually impossible to estimate exactly how many Kosovar Albanians have left the province for Albania, Montenegro or Macedonia within the past 48 hours. He said his organization, the UNHCR, prefers what he described as a conservative estimate of from 30,000 to 40,000 refugees.
Janowski says of the refugee flow:
"It is escalating hourly. Thousands of people are leaving Kosovo, as we speak, both for northern Albania and for Montenegro. We've had more people moving into northern Albania during the last weekend than we had during the entire crisis in Kosovo last spring and summer."
Albanian authorities yesterday estimated the number of Kosovar refugees who crossed into their country over the weekend as upwards of 60,000. And an RFE/RL correspondent in Skopje reports that Macedonia's Deputy Prime Minster Radmila Kiprojanova said yesterday that at least 11,000 Kosovars had crossed into her nation since the beginning of the Kosovo crisis.
Kiprojanova said her government will continue to provide assistance to what she described as genuine refugees who entered Macedonia either legally or illegally in recent days. But she appealed for additional Western assistance in order to take care of the refugees. So far, she added, Macedonia had received only $15 million in aid.
The Yugoslav Republic of Montenegro has also taken in a large number of refugees in recent days. A newspaper ("Vijesti") in the capital Podgorica said that thousands of Kosovars had crossed the border into Montenegro, where a pro-Western government has been providing shelter and assistance.
UNHCR spokesman Janowski said that there was no doubt the exodus was initiated by Serbian forces, who he said were again engaging in what is known as "ethnic cleansing." But asked to comment on a NATO spokesman's characterization yesterday of the Kosovo refugee flow as the worst humanitarian disaster since the closing days of World War II, Janowski recalled that more that 2.2 million Bosnians were displaced during the war in that country from 1992 to 1995.
In a television interview yesterday, German Defense Minister Rudolph Scharping said flatly that "genocide has begun" in Kosovo. That and similar Western views of the Kosovo "catastrophe" were rejected as mere propaganda yesterday by Serbia's refugee commissioner, Bratislava Morina.
Speaking on state-run Serbian television, Morina said: "There is no humanitarian catastrophe in Kosovo." She blamed the exodus of ethnic Albanians on NATO air strikes on what she called "civilian targets" in Kosovo and on the fact, she said, that some ethnic Albanian leaders had left the country.
Morina: "If NATO wants [ethnic Albanians] to return, it should immediately stop [its air strikes]."
But that was not the view of many of the thousands of Kosovars who are fleeing their homes for sanctuary in nearby countries. Our correspondent in Macedonia spoke with a 16-year-old young Kosovar woman just after she crossed the border:
"I can just say that the Serbians are wild animals, just animals who only want to kill people."
Then our correspondent spoke to a man who had fled the Kosovar capital Pristina:
"I believe in NATO air strikes and the diplomacy that is going on to bring peace to Kosovo."
The man, 36, said he had fled Pristina with his family and said he knew no one in Albania. He called Pristina a "city of fear," but expressed confidence that one day he would return.