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Yugoslavia: NATO Worries About Effect On Neighboring Countries

Brussels, 31 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A NATO spokesman says the 19-nation alliance is very concerned about the situation of countries neighboring Kosovo because of pressure on them caused by a growing influx of ethnic Albanian refugees.

Jamie Shea spoke in Brussels yesterday following further evidence of Serb military and police attacks on Kosovo towns and villages, NATO plans to launch air attacks on Serb tanks and barracks, and a top-level diplomatic initiative launched by Moscow.

Shea said, if reports are confirmed, the world is seeing the forced expulsion of people from Kosovo on a scale that has not been since the forced evacuation of the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, by the Khmer Rouge in the mid-1970s.

As Shea spoke, Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov ended talks in Belgrade with President Slobodan Milosevic, saying they yielded "positive results." Primakov, whose country strongly condemns the NATO strikes, flew on to Germany to brief Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Bonn holds the rotating presidency of the EU.

Shea said that military, police and paramilitary Serb forces in Kosovo are "driving people out, destroying homes and infrastructure and burning whole cities." He said there are unconfirmed reports that Pec, Kosovo's second largest city, has been near destroyed.

Belgrade officials claim the ethnic Albanians fleeing into Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro are seeking to escape the NATO missiles and bombs.

Shea said the NATO countries are primarily concerned with "the escalating humanitarian disaster in and around Kosovo" caused by an exodus of an estimated 118,000 ethnic Albanian refugees in the past six days. Shea said "Milosevic cannot invade neighboring countries with refugees in the hope that he can destabilize them."

Shea said leaders of the NATO alliance have made it clear to neighboring countries " yesterday that we stand by them, we need them, they are very important to our efforts to stabilize the region." Noting that several regional countries are hosting NATO forces at the present time, Shea said "We have a direct and real interest in their security."

The former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia has the largest NATO contingent, some 12,000 troops which are intended to implement any eventual peace deal.

NATO Secretary General Javier Solana had a breakfast meeting with the Macedonian foreign minister yesterday to discuss the pressure on his country caused by an influx of 22,500 ethnic Albanian civilians. Shea said officials of the NATO nations will hold "19 plus one" consultations with Macedonian government leaders in the next few days. These follow top-level talks a few days ago with the Albanian government.

NATO is to dispatch a liaison team to the Macedonian capital, Skopje, to improve the coordination of the refugee relief effort, as well as contacts with a country that itself has a large ethnic Albanian population. Shea said NATO is also intensifying daily contacts with all of the neighboring countries but did not say how many will be involved.

A meeting of the NATO ambassadors' council heard yesterday of plans to step up emergency supplies of field hospitals, tents, sleeping bags, blankets and food to help Albania -- worst hit by the crisis -- to cope with the strains on its impoverished economy.

Shea said the number of Kosovo refugees in Albania may now have exceeded the 100,000 level. According to officials of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the figure is expected to go up to 150,000 in the next few days. Montenegro, the smaller component of Yugoslavia, is hosting 42,500 refugees, according to latest figures.

Calling the exodus "a humanitarian disaster of enormous proportions", Shea said the NATO nations "will be in the forefront of the international community in supplying money and materiel to address the refugee crisis."

NATO officials repeated their strong denial that the exodus was prompted by fear of NATO attacks. They said it is clear the Milosevic regime was planning a systematic campaign to step up moves against the ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo even while his government was participating in the abortive Rambouillet, Paris, peace talks.

Shea said yesterday that there is no justification for what he called the "ethnic reengineering of Kosovo", although he acknowledged that what he called Milosevic's timing in driving out its inhabitants "may have been unpredictable to us."

NATO officials say, in many cases, Serb police and military have offered Kosovar Albanians with free transport to neighboring frontiers. Shay said "You don't improvise a whole bus fleet if you haven't planned this operation a long time in advance."

Relief officials say many of the refugees have been stripped of their passports, ID cards and property by Serb border guards, making it hard to return home. There are also new reports of Kosovo men being separated from women and children, and taken away.

NATO's military command says poor weather has continued to hamper the air operation, but the alliance's air forces are well into plans to mount round-the-clock strikes to interdict the operation of Serb army and police forces on the ground..

But NATO is sticking to its position that it has no plans to send ground troops into Kosovo. Western officials say the deployment of ground troops "is not some kind of magical short cut" to a Kosovo settlement. British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook says NATO is unwilling to "fight its way into Kosovo", a reluctance partly dictated by the reported presence of 40,000 Serb troops and 300 tanks in the region.

Shea expressed hope yesterday that Primakov will be successful in "persuading Milosevic to halt his attacks in Kosovo." He said NATO wants an end to the "systematic campaign against the population of Kosovo, guarantees that (Serb) tanks, troops and artillery will be withdrawn outside Kosovo, that the humanitarian situation will be addressed, and that refugees will be allowed home."