Washington, 1 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A senior U.S. official says NATO is stepping up efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to the refugees fleeing Kosovo.
Julia Taft, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration, made the announcement Wednesday at a press conference in Washington.
Taft said her office has begun discussions with the U.S. Defense Department on what the military can do in terms of providing logistical support and other commodities to aid refugees fleeing Kosovo into Montenegro, Macedonia and Albania.
Taft says the U.S. is already providing eight and one half million dollars in contribution to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees to help displaced persons from Kosovo, as well as a promise to fund a third of the food that would be required to feed them. She added that the international community and relief agencies who had been operating in Kosovo, but have since been kicked out by Serb forces, are working hard to reallocate food and commodities and establish new delivery routes to help food and supplies reach the refugees as soon as they cross the border.
Taft called the situation in Kosovo a "humanitarian catastrophe which is unfolding at a very rapid rate."
Taft says: "With each passing day, we are finding that virtually everybody from Kosovo has been affected by the conflict. The ones who have been able to get out -- and so far, in just the past week, 107,000 have been able to get out as refugees -- they're in fact the lucky ones. The ones that we can't reach are the people who are still within the country."
Taft says reports indicate that another 18,000 people have fled Kosovo into Albania in just the past 24 hours. She adds that a third of the refugees there have already been moved on to other locations in Albania where they will stay with host families and at other reception sites.
Citing U.N. statistics on refugees, Taft says that since March 1998, more than 250,000 refugees have fled Kosovo, and another 335,000 people are internally displaced in Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia.
Joining Taft at the press conference was Hugh Parmer, Assistant Administrator for Humanitarian Response for the U.S. Agency for International Development.
According to Parmer, the U.S. government already has a Disaster Assistance Response Team in place in Skopje which is coordinating not only U.S. government activities, but also helping the non-governmental and international organizations organize and manage the relief effort. He adds that the U.S. is now dispatching a second team to northern Albania which should be in place by this weekend.
Parmer says that there is some good news in regards to the relief effort. He says he has been informed by the World Food Program that there is sufficient food supplies on the ground in Albania to feed a refugee population of 100,000 for a period of two weeks.
He says: "So, I want everyone to understand that, as of this moment in time, food is not the most critical item that is faced by the refugees, at least in Albania. And I believe that is true in Macedonia, too, because we have routes of supply into Macedonia." Parmer says shelter is now the most pressing problem for the refugees. He adds that in response to this problem, international relief agencies and NATO armed forces are helping to move tents, plastic sheeting, sanitation kits and other similar types of goods into the region as quickly as possible.
Later, during the regular White House press briefing on Wednesday, spokesman Joe Lockhart said U.S. President Bill Clinton had now authorized an additional $50 million to address the urgent humanitarian needs of Kosovo's refugees.
Lockhart said $25 million would be taken from an emergency refugee and migration fund, and the other 25 million from the Defense Department. He said half the money would be sent to the U.N. High Commission on Refugees, with the other half going to pay for food and shelter.