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Yugoslavia: Kosovo Refugees Surge Across Borders As 90 Percent Of Population Expelled

London, 5 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- NATO officials say the latest NATO bombing strikes against Serb military forces in Kosovo and Serbia were the most effective yet in the six-week air campaign.

The 41st night of bombing coincided with fresh diplomatic activity with talks in Washington between President Bill Clinton and Russian Balkans envoy Viktor Chernomyrdin on efforts to find peace.

Clinton today briefly visits NATO headquarters in Brussels where he will be briefed on the political and military aspects of the Kosovo crisis by Secretary General Javier Solana. He will also get a full briefing on the military situation on the ground by NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe, General Wesley Clark.

The past 24 hours have seen the highest figure of refugees to cross the borders from Kosovo into neighboring Albania and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia for more than a month.

NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said 11,600 Kosovar Albanians, many of them forced aboard three trains, crossed into Macedonia, putting fresh strains on the hastily-erected refugee settlements.

As most refugees came from Podujevo, some 30 kms north of the regional capital, Pristina, this suggested that this area was being cleared by Serb forces in a "systematic deportation campaign".

NATO officials have denied claims from Belgrade that alliance pilots bombed a bus in Kosovo, killing 17 civilians west of Pec near the Albanian-Montenegrin border. NATO officials say the nature of the damage to the bus suggests it was caught in ground fire. They say the area has seen intense fighting between Serb forces and the secessionist Kosovo Liberation Army in recent days

In another incident, Pentagon officials say a U.S. F-16 plane shot down a Yugoslav air force MIG-29 after an air-to-air engagement.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair ended a swing through the Balkans with an address to the Romanian parliament in Bucharest in which he said that forces loyal to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic were engaged in what he called "racial genocide."

Shea told the daily (Tuesday) news briefing in Brussels that NATO fliers took advantage of favorable weather to strike in the most extensive way yet at the Serb army and special police in Kosovo

He said the alliance pilots stuck against tanks, artillery and military equipment of the estimated 40,000 Serb troops in Kosovo. They also struck 40 fixed targets elsewhere in Yugoslavia. Shea said: "No part of the Yugoslav army was spared."

Shea said the campaign against the Yugoslav forces is "working." He said the alliance "strategy is to pin these forces down, cut them off from the command chain and resupply routes,. and to take them out aggressively and deliberately."

NATO's military spokesman Major General Walter Jertz said the alliance attacks mean that Serb forces "can no longer move when they want to. They can only move furtively in fear."

Jertz said the alliance fliers hit the 125th Motorized Brigade in western Kosovo and the 233rd Motorized Brigade in eastern Kosovo "specially hard". In addition, he said the NATO pilots hit many armored vehicles, artillery positions, command posts and radar facilities. Surface-to-air missile support vehicles were also struck.

He said the allied pilots hit more than 80 percent of their targets.

Jertz said the alliance has continued attacks against the Serb forces' petroleum assets, a campaign designed to starve military vehicles of fuel. To complement this drive, some 30 countries have now joined the international oil embargo on Yugoslavia.

In the past 24 hours, allied pilots struck at bridges, airfields and an ordnance repair facility. Surface-to-air missile defenses were less intense than usual. All allied pilots reportedly returned safely.

A statement from Belgrade says 1,200 civilians have been killed by the NATO air raids so far -- a far higher figure than has been suggested during the six-weeks of NATO briefings in Brussels.

But Shea said today that there is evidence that the Serb military are "going to some lengths to conceal their casualties."

He said reports from Belgrade today said that cemeteries were closed until midday "to allow military burials to take place."

Asked to comment on Clinton's suggestion that there could be a "pause" in the bombing, Shea said the U.S. president was restating the NATO position -- namely, that if Serb forces stopped violence, and pulled out of Kosovo, the air strikes could be suspended.

Shea also said that allied leaders and Russian officials are holding a series of discussions on the question of a possible U.N. mandate for an international security force to be deployed in Kosovo. He added: "But we will have to wait to see, as these discussions with Russia progress, if we can achieve that."

Russia, a traditional ally of the fellow Slav and orthodox Serbs, has condemned the NATO air strikes. But it has also stepped up its efforts to try to secure a negotiated settlement to the crisis.

Shea said any peace implementation force eventually deployed in Kosovo must be "a robust force with proper rules of engagement" -- that is, the force must be adequately armed in order to be able to protect the Kosovar Albanians when and if they return home.

Shea said over the past 12 months 800,000 Kosovo Albanians have fled the province. Another 650,000 are internally displaced, and at least 100,000 men of military age are "missing."

He said: "Nearly 1.5 million Kosovar Albanians, or 90 percent of the population, have now been expelled from their homes."