Refugees become 'weapons of war'

Wisdom of shipping refugees to Cuba called into question

April 07, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Military officials scrambled yesterday to prepare the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay for an influx of Kosovar refugees, as questions mounted over the wisdom of shipping ethnic Albanians across the Atlantic to an isolated outpost on the edge of Cuba.

White House and Pentagon officials announced that the first of as many as 20,000 Kosovar Albanians will arrive at Guantanamo Bay by the weekend.

But with only enough accommodations for about 1,300 people, the Navy base will not be able to absorb all the refugees for up to 45 days while a camp is built, officials said.

The 20,000 are among the U.S. contingent of at least 75,000 refugees who will be temporarily relocated around the world to relieve beleaguered nations in states near Kosovo that have taken in hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians driven out of Kosovo by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's forces.

The U.S.-led airlift "is intended, in combination with our NATO allies, to assist front-line states, such as Macedonia, in dealing with tremendous burdens they have incurred in recent days with the flow of refugees out of Kosovo," White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said.

But, like every other action in the Balkans, NATO's decision to airlift out the Kosovars appears to have been the best of a lot of bad options, driven by the need to prevent the Kosovo crisis from inflaming ethnic strife in the region, especially in Macedonia.

At least 120,000 Kosovars have fled to Macedonia since NATO airstrikes began March 24, and those ethnic Albanians are threatening to disrupt the delicate demographic balance in the fledgling republic, which is 24 percent Albanian.

Thousands of them are encamped in a squalid no-man's land on the border between Kosovo and Macedonia, cordoned off by Macedonian police on one side and hostile Serb forces on the other.

The Kosovar refugees -- some 831,000 in all -- have become a diplomatic and military nightmare for NATO.

In addition to the difficult task of finding a peaceful settlement to the conflict, European and U.S. diplomats must decide whether to fight until the refugees can safely return home.

Meanwhile, the refugees have significantly complicated military operations.

Rear Adm. Thomas R. Wilson, director of intelligence for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said yesterday that allied pilots often had to hold their fire because they could not differentiate between columns of Serb troops and hordes of fleeing refugees.

The air traffic from the humanitarian relief operation has slowed the deployment of 24 Apache attack helicopters to Operation Allied Force.

Also, NATO ground troops, sent to Macedonia as the vanguard of a peacekeeping force in Kosovo, are spending their time erecting tents, cooking rations and transporting supplies.

"The refugees have become weapons of war," said Arthur C. Helton, who teaches refugee law at New York University. "NATO has been distracted and degraded by the refugee crisis. The refugee emergency has begun to dictate strategy and tactics on the military side and foreclose diplomatic options."

On top of that, the airlift has begun to divide supporters of the NATO air campaign.

Albanian-American groups -- strong supporters of NATO military action -- fear that airlifting Kosovars from the region will relieve the pressure on the allies to ensure the refugees' return to Kosovo.

France and Finland have expressed similar misgivings, fearing that the airlift is the first step toward creating a permanent Kosovar diaspora.

Emma Bonino, the European Union's commissioner for humanitarian affairs, went further, hinting that the airlift would complete the work that Milosevic had begun.

NATO, she said, "should not participate in helping the `ethnic cleansing.' "

On the other side, the Macedonian government demanded yesterday that the West do far more to help.

Aid workers reported that Macedonian officials had begun impounding medicine and slowing the flow of food to refugees.

"How many do we have to take to satisfy Europe and for the Kosovo people to say thank you?" Macedonian Prime Minister Lupco Georgievski fumed yesterday. "As fast as European countries take the refugees from Macedonia, that is how fast the problem will end."

Macedonian concerns appear to be pre-eminent, refugee experts say.

"I'm pretty firmly convinced, if the Macedonians weren't demanding [the airlift], it wouldn't be happening," said Bill Frelick, senior policy analyst at the U.S. Committee for Refugees, who has been consulting with the White House.

Frelick and other refugee experts counseled that refugees in Macedonia should be sent to Albania, a far more hospitable nation that would welcome the refugees if they were accompanied by a large influx of Western aid.

If Albania could not absorb them all, the remainder should at least stay in the region, the experts have advised.

Albania is coping with its own refugee crisis, having taken in 262,000 Kosovars since the bombing began.

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