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Yugoslavia: NATO Says Most Kosovars Driven From Their Homes

Brussels, 7 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said yesterday that the bulk of the population of Kosovo have now been driven from their homes, with hundreds of thousands seeking sanctuary in neighboring Albania and Macedonia, and an estimated one million displaced within the southern Serbian province itself.

He told a news briefing in Brussels yesterday that many of the Kosovar Albanians who have crossed the borders have reported summary executions "in at least 50 towns and villages" throughout Kosovo. The claims cannot be independently corroborated.

Shea spoke after a 13th night of NATO air strikes aimed at deterring Yugoslav army and Serb special police and paramilitary units from expelling Kosovar families from their homes, with pilots flying an increased number of sorties owing to improving weather.

NATO's military spokesman Air Commodore David Wilby reported that over the past 24 hours NATO planes and missiles struck at targets throughout Serbia, including Kosovo itself. He said they hit a bridge, air defense radars, communication links, airfields, a police headquarters and petroleum storage facilities.

Serbian media yesterday reported that five civilians were killed in the southern Serbian mining town of Aleksinac. Wilby acknowledged that one of NATO's weapons may have gone astray despite what he called "meticulous pre-attack planning."

"Last night, we struck a military facility at Alecsinac, home of the 203rd mixed artillery brigade. It is possible that one of our weapons fell short of the target."

Wilby said the weapon may have fallen short because of technical failure or because it was hit by fire from Yugoslav air defenses. He said that "whatever the reason, any unintended damage to civilian property or loss of life is very much regretted." All NATO aircraft are said to have returned safely to base.

Meanwhile, NATO ambassadors yesterday welcomed what they called the "quick and very important" decision of the Albanian government to authorize the stationing of U.S. Apache attack helicopters in Albania. The low-flying aircraft are said to be particularly effective against tanks and artillery positions.

The NATO ambassadors also said the 19-nation alliance would view with the "utmost seriousness any attack by Yugoslavia on Albanian territory as a consequence of its support for alliance operations." NATO has stressed its determination that the Kosovo crisis should not be permitted to destabilize neighboring Balkans countries.

Shea said NATO's military committee yesterday gave the North Atlantic Council, which decides alliance policy, a detailed proposal for the establishment of a forward NATO headquarters in Albania to help coordinate the humanitarian relief effort. The proposal also envisages the dispatch of a "small but significant NATO" humanitarian force.

Shea said he expects the North Atlantic Council to approve the plan, as well as plans for a NATO-led humanitarian airlift to Albania, in the "very near future."

NATO officials say the 12,000 alliance peace implementation troops in the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia -- intended to supervise any eventual Kosovo peace agreement -- are working around the clock to bring humanitarian relief to border areas. Some 33 humanitarian flights landed in Macedonia yesterday, bringing food, tents, medical supplies, sleeping bags, mattresses and cots. Some 20,000 refugees have been settled at a "tented village" near a small airfield in Macedonia.

Shea said another 40,000 ethnic Albanian refugees, or what he also called "deportees", flooded across the Albanian and Macedonian borders yesterday. Some 22,000 crossed into Albania, bringing the total there since the Kosovo conflict erupted in March last year to 244,000. He said NATO forces in Albania have established tent camps for 10,000 people and plan to expand this capacity to 25,000 in the next few days.

NATO's Deputy Secretary General Sergio Balanzino was due to visit Tirana yesterday and will go to the northern border areas today where most of the refugees are clustered. The Italian diplomat is on a four-nation Balkan shuttle which has so far taken him to Sofia, Bucharest and Skopje. He is reported to have assured them of the alliance's economic and other support, part of a drive to limit any "spillover" from the Kosovo crisis.

Shea expressed concern again yesterday about the plight of an estimated 60,000 Kosovar Albanians who are reported to be trapped inside Kosovo in border areas without food and water. Western relief organizations fear there is a danger of disease.

Shea said the number of Kosovar Albanians crossing into Bosnia-Herzegovina has significantly increased -- to 7,900 -- in recent days.

Shea said alliance officials originally believed that the bulk of the refugees who have fled Kosovo since March last year had been displaced by fighting between Serb forces and the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army, or were escaping Serb reprisals.

He said: "We now know better. The refugees are not the unfortunate by-products of the Serb violence in Kosovo. They are the reason and object of that violence."