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Yugoslavia: Kosovo Refugee Crisis Straining Nations, Agencies

Prague, 9 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The flood of refugees from Serbia's Kosovo province over the last two weeks has stunned neighboring states, leaving them and international aid agencies struggling to cope.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that nearly 500,000 people -- the overwhelming majority of them ethnic Albanians -- have left Kosovo since NATO's air strikes on Yugoslavia began two weeks ago. It says many more of Kosovo's 1.8 million ethnic Albanians had already fled since Serbian authorities began a crack down in Kosovo more than a year ago.

The neighboring states of Albania and Macedonia have borne the brunt of the exodus and now must manage refugee populations estimated at 293,000 and 136,000, respectively. Montenegro -- the junior partner in the Yugoslav Federation -- is caring for 60,000.

The UNHCR says Bosnia-Herzegovina is caring for more than 24,000, while Turkey is housing 7,600 and Croatia 330.

Other countries in Europe and North America are preparing to assume some of the refugee load, but refugee organizations and the UNHCR say the response so far falls far short of what is needed. Amnesty International issued a statement yesterday in London. It said that -- while shelter, food and medical care are needed desperately -- so are places of refuge for tens of thousands in transit.

The UNHCR says the states of the European Union have agreed to take in 20,000 of the refugees. Germany alone is making places for 10,000. But EU interior ministers -- at a meeting in Luxembourg yesterday -- rejected a proposal for a massive airlift of Kosovar refugees to nations beyond the Balkan peninsula. They say this would send the wrong signal by appearing to accede to Serbian efforts to cleanse Kosovo of ethnic Albanians.

German Interior Minister Otto Schily said Germany stands by its promise to take in 10,000 refugees, and all member countries agreed to accept more refugees. They didn't agree, however, on specific quotas.

This may not be the final word from the EU, however. EU foreign ministers, who met in Luxembourg yesterday, also discussed the refugee crisis. Earlier this week, French President Jacques Chirac said he had asked German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder -- the current EU chairman -- to devote a scheduled April 14 EU summit to the issue. The German Foreign Ministry said this afternoon that Germany has not yet formulated an official response.

In the Balkans, the vast numbers of refugees have overwhelmed Albania and Macedonia.

Macedonia drew international condemnation yesterday when officials abruptly moved -- many forcibly -- about 35,000 refugees from Blace, on the Yugoslav border. Refugee organizations said the relocations were so sudden that families became separated and refugees were forced to leave behind many of their belongings. Albanian Prime Minister Pandeli Majko said in Tirana that Macedonia's treatment of the Kosovar refugees has strained relations between Tirana and Skopje.

Conditions were described as intolerable in Blace, which had no resources to handle the unexpected thousands. In Geneva yesterday, a spokesman (Hernando del Mundo) at UNHCR international headquarters said the main error of the Macedonians was in acting suddenly without consultation.

The UNHCR says transit camps in Macedonia now house all but 10,000 of the Blace refugees. Macedonia yesterday attempted to transfer 10,000 to Greece but, without any notice, Greek border officials refused to accept them. The UNHCR said those now are housed in temporary transit camps in southern Albania.

Yesterday in Skopje, Norwegian Foreign Minister Knut Vollebaek -- chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe -- said that forced relocations are unacceptable. However, he praised Macedonia for accepting large numbers of refugees.

Vollebaek told RFE/RL's correspondent in Skopje that shipping Kosovar Albanians out of the Balkans is an undesirable solution but might be necessary, at least on a temporary basis:

"I see that as a matter of principle the refugees should be catered for in the neighboring states, but we also have to see the actual political and economic situation in these countries and assist them also by transferring refugees out of these countries to our own countries."

The UNHCR's latest tally lists -- in addition to the EU's 20,000 -- promises of placement for at least 54,000 more refugees, as follows:

-- The United States plans to accept 20,000 refugees at its Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba. Cuba -- which disputes U.S. possession of the base -- is protesting. In 1994, U.S. authorities used the base to house persons fleeing from Cuba and Haiti.

-- Turkey is pledging to accept 20,000, Norway at least 5,000, Canada 5,000, and distant Australia, 4,000.

-- Although not listed by the UNHCR, Austria, Sweden and Greece have committed to absorbing 5,000 each, while Denmark says it will take in 1,400 and Ireland 1,000.

-- Romania has announced it can take in up to 6,000 refugees but will require Western aid equivalent to $15 per person per day.

-- The Bulgarian Foreign Ministry said in a statement yesterday that it has closed its borders to all Yugoslav citizens, including Kosovar Albanians, in response to Yugoslav restrictions on Bulgarian citizens. The ministry said, however, that it will organize convoys for refugees in transit through its territory and that such refugees, once inside Bulgaria, will be permitted to apply for sanctuary.

Bulgaria also is dealing with a lesser-known refugee exodus. Thousands of ethnic Bulgarians are fleeing southern Serbia to avoid being drafted into the Serbian army. Bulgaria has protested this draft, and the foreign ministry says it will accept ethnic Bulgarian refugees without limit.

-- Slovakia plans to take in 1,000 Kosovar refugees and to donate an automated bread bakery to Albania or Macedonia as aid for the refugees. The Slovak cabinet is scheduled to discuss the details of this plan today.

-- The Czech Republic is sending to Albania equipment for a field hospital. Deputy Prime Minister Egon Lansky was in Tirana, the Albanian capital yesterday. He brought with him a token first shipment of equipment. The rest is due to arrive in the next few days.

-- Egypt sent 34 tons of relief supplies to Tirana yesterday. Egypt and many Arab countries have condemned the Serbian assault on the mostly Muslim Kosovar Albanians, although some have stopped short of approving NATO's bombing attacks on Yugoslavia.