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Yugoslavia: Czech NGO Faces Serb Interference In Aiding Kosovars

Morina, Albania; 5 May 1999 (RFE/RL) - A Czech non-governmental humanitarian organization (NGO) is overcoming obstacles in delivering nearly $1 million in aid to displaced Kosovars in Montenegro and refugees in northeastern Kosovo.

Simon Panek of the Prague-based People in Need Foundation (Nadace clovek v tisni) last week accompanied a convoy transporting 150 tons of food, clothing and medicine to the nearly 80,000 displaced Kosovars in Montenegro. They are concentrated mainly in the coastal resort of Ulcinj and the mountain towns of Rozaj, Plav and Gusinje.

The delivery was jointly sponsored by the Czech NGO and the Czech foreign ministry, with the support of the Montenegrin government. In spite of official backing, Panek says Yugoslav federal authorities have offered only constant interference.

"Despite accompanying a really big convoy, we spent a total of 11 percent of our four-day stay in Montenegro in the hands of Serbian military police and military units. Basically, wherever we went, we were perceived as spies, markers (marking potential targets) or collaborators of NATO. So working there is incredibly difficult."

Panek made the remarks to RFE/RL this week while awaiting an arrival of new refugees at Morina, the last remaining border crossing between Kosovo and Albania.

Panek says that Rozaj, which had a peacetime population of 20,000 Montenegrins, Muslims and Albanians, is now inundated with 25,000 displaced persons from Kosovo. He says the situation in Rozaj appears considerably worse than in the northeastern Albanian town of Kukes, where 100,000 refugees are concentrated in organized camps set up by foreign governments and international organizations.

Kosovars who flee to Albania are refugees. But those who flee to Montenegro have the status of displaced persons because they remain within the same country, Yugoslavia. Serb authorities at the border confiscate the identity documents of Kosovars heading for Albania. But those seeking shelter in Montenegro are able to keep their papers.

Panek says while the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Committee of the Red Cross and Medecins sans Frontieres are operating in Montenegro, most NGOs are unwilling or unable to work within this constituent part of Yugoslavia. As a result of last weeks NATO air strikes around the Montenegrin capital Podgorica, he says, the few remaining international aid organizations have evacuated many foreign workers.

Panek says the displaced Kosovars in Montenegro are considerably more nervous than those who have reached Albania.

"Of the 25,000 refugees in Rozaj, 5,000-6,000 are in collection centers -- two tent camps and two unsuitable, disused factory halls. What is really palpable is the fear, because Kosovo is close and paramilitary groups and Yugoslav soldiers are in the vicinity. In contrast to the refugees in Kosovo, those in Montenegro feel much worse and constantly say so."

Panek says the cause of the fear is the presence of the Yugoslav Second Army and the shootings by Serb troops of between six and 10 civilians near Rozaj on April 16. Serb news media claimed the victims were "terrorists" -- members of the insurgent Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK). Since the shootings, thousands of Kosovar refugees have fled from Montenegro to the relative safety of Albania.

Panek quotes Yugoslav Deputy Foreign Minister Veselin Sukovic as questioning the truth of the Serb claims that the victims of the shootings were "terrorists," since a 13-year-old girl and a 70-year-old woman were among the dead.

People in Need is also active in Albania, having supplied 300 tons of humanitarian aid in cooperation with the Albanian branch of the Roman Catholic aid organization, Caritas, as well as with the Kosovo humanitarian aid organization Ulpjan, affiliated with Ibrahim Rugovas Democratic League of Kosovo. Panek says:

"A part of this aid has gone to Kukes and part went to Bajram Curri (pronounced Bayram Tsoori), where we were the first humanitarian aid organization to distribute via the local office of the OSCE, which is in the best position to know where the aid is most needed."

Panek says a truck departed the Czech Republic on Monday with humanitarian aid destined for the Albanian town of Kruma, north of Kukes. The area has been the target of occasional shelling by Serb forces in recent days.

A senior police officer in Kukes told RFE/RL that state authorities in Tropoja district, which includes Bajram Curri, are only able to maintain 40 percent control over the area due to the presence of an armed clan.

Panek says the absence of a functioning state administration in the mountains of northeastern Albania makes assistance work in the area difficult and dangerous. But he says the OSCE mission in Bajram Curri has succeeded in establishing contacts with clan chiefs to explain the missions presence and reach agreement on a certain degree of protection. Nevertheless, Panek says the risk is substantial.