Brussels, 4 April 1999 (RFE/RL) - NATO is considering the creation of a "safe sanctuary" area in the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia for tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians still trapped inside Kosovo and trying to cross the frontier.
Alliance ambassadors decided in Brussels today to ask the Britsh commander of 12,000 NATO peace implementation troops in Macedonia, General Michael Jackson, to examine the feasibility of the "haven" proposal and report back without delay.
British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook proposed the creation of a sanctuary area to bring relief to the many Kosovar Albanians who are stranded in the open without food or shelter after being driven from their homes by Serb military, police and paramilitaries.
NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said today that the plight of some 60,000 Kosovar Albanians trapped in "no man's land" on the Macedonian border, as well as on the Albanian frontier, is "dire" as many have been without food for 48 hours.
However, he said there are no plans to airdrop food or medicines into Kosovo because these supplies might end up in the hands of Serb forces, and the low-flying propellor-driven aircraft needed for such an airdrop would be vulnerable to ground fire.
NATO's military spokesman, Air Commodore David Wilby said today the humanitarian crisis in the Macedonia border region is deepening with many thousands waiting to cross to safety. He said there have been reports of deaths, largely from hypothermia "among these tired, hungry, rainsoaked and mistreated people."
The refugee situation on the Kosovo-Albanian border is also reported to be "grave", particularly as, according to Wilby, Yugoslav military forces are moving west to engage the last remnants of the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army in the frontier zone.
The EU presidency, currently held by Germany, tonight issued a statement saying that the number of refugees fleeing Kosovo is "growing by the hour."
NATO Deputy Secretary General Sergio Balanzino embarks tomorrow on a four-country Balkans tour aimed at briefing government leaders about the Kosovo crisis, to express the alliance's support and active assistance for their administrations, and to assess the situation on the ground. He is going to Bulgaria, Romania, Albania and Macedonia.
Shea said the NATO allies want to ensure that countries in the region are not "unduly affected" by the "destabilising repercussions of the Kosovo crisis." NATO officials are also providing continuing briefings for Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that Macedonia has received 125,000 refugees, Albania 226,000 and Montenegro 33,000. This has put the limited facilities in poor border areas under what aid agencies say is an "impossible strain." According to Shea, some 50,000 refugees poured out of Kosovo yesterday.
Representatives of EU and NATO member states, the OSCE, and the UNHCR met in Brussels today to discuss concrete measures to confront what the EU statement called "the humanitarian disaster brought about by the criminal and irresponsible action of (Yugoslav) President Slobodan Milosevic's forces in Kosovo."
The statement followed further NATO aircraft and missile strikes against Serb military and logistical targets in and around Belgrade, and at highway bridges, petroleum storage areas and an ammunition plant in areas outside the Serbian capital. NATO officials say the air strikes will continue until Milosevic ends the "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovar civilians.
But they also say they are doing everything possible to avoid civilian casualties and, partly owing to thick clouds, many aircraft have returned without releasing their bombs.
The EU statement said Milosevic has embarked on a policy of "changing the ethnic balance in Kosovo and using the flood of refugees to destabilise the region. . .at unimaginable human costs borne by innocent civilians forced to flee their homes."
The statement came as British officials confessed to a "failure of imagination. . . as they had not expected the speed, scale and savagery with which Milosevic has emptied whole towns of Kosovo." NATO military officials are meanwhile sensitive to criticism from journalists that the near two-week air campaign has failed to halt the Serb expulsions.
Belgrade officials continue to claim that the Kosovar refugees are fleeing the NATO air strikes, not harrassment by Serb forces, but the refugees say they were forced by Serb paramilitaries or special police to leave their homes at gunpoint, or after shelling by Yugoslav army artillery. Many were dispatched on special trains to the border.
NATO officials have been struggling to catch up with the scale of the humanitarian crisis, said to be one of the largest to overwhelm Europe since the closing stages of the Second World War. Shea said yesterday, at the current rate of departures, Kosovo will be entirely emptied of its ethnic Albanian population within 10 to 20 days.
The NATO ambassadors today discussed ways to speed up the transport of food, water, medicines, blankets and temporary shelter to the stranded refugees. All 19 NATO nations are sending supplies. The Czech Republic is sending food, blankets and medicines; while Poland is dispatching sheets, clothing and bandages. Bulgaria, which is a member of NATO's Partnership for Peace program, is sending tents, eating utensils and blankets.
The UNHCR has asked NATO officials for help in airlift coordination; the offloading and storage of supplies; and logistical help in establishing temporary refugee camps.
The NATO peace implementation troops in Macedonia are transporting food and water from the capital, Skopje, to border areas. They are building four refugee camps which are intended to provide accommodation for some 20,000 people.
Planes conducting airlifts of supplies from donor countries are flying home from Skopje airport carrying refugees to temporary havens in European countries, a measure designed to ease the pressure on the Macedonian government.
NATO countries, including the U.S., Germany, Turkey and Greece, have agreed to accept Kosovo refugees, but they will be offered only temporary accommodation as the intention is to return them to their homes after a ceasefire and peace settlement. Shea said: "We don't want to have a new refugee population floating around Europe."
NATO's military planners have been asked to submit plans for alliance assistance to Albania. Shea says the aim is to bring airlifts of vital supplies to the Tirana government, and also to establish a "rapid deployment" forward headquarters which will coordinate efforts to succour the refugees in support of the government and UNHCR.
NATO has delivered helicopters to Albania to help transport supplies from Tirana to northern areas where some 90,000 refugees are camped out in the open.
Shea also expressed concern today about Montenegro, the smaller of the two republics that make up what is left of former Yugoslavia. He said the situation there is "grave" because "about 15 percent of its population is now made up of refugees, placing an enormous strain on the social system." He noted that NATO countries have warned Milosevic against any bid to undermine the democratically-elected and pro-western government of President Milo Djukanovic.
Shea cast new light on the situation of the former Kosovo leader, Ibrahim Rugova, a moderate ethnic Albanian. He said one of the NATO allies (unidentified) has had contacts in the last few days with some of his associates. They reported that Rugova's house is occupied by Serb security forces, he has no freedom of movement and he has to report to the local police station several times a day. Shea said film footage of Rugova meeting with Milosevic shown by Serbian TV a few days ago was, apparently shot two years earlier. His associates say that Rugova's plea for a halt to the violence in Kosovo was altered in transcript to an appeal for an end to NATO bombings.
Pope John Paul sent an Easter Sunday message calling for an end to what he called for the "cruel shedding of blood" in Kosovo, and reflecting on the plight of all those who have been "killed, made homeless or torn from their families."
It was 50 years today (Sunday) that NATO was founded. Shea said: "None of us thought that this would be the way in which we would mark NATO's 50th anniversary."