First relief convoy heads toward Kosovo amid fears of mass starvation, disease

Yugoslavs set condition: Some supplies must aid needy Serbian civilians

War In Yugoslavia

April 16, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman and Mark Matthews | Jonathan Weisman and Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- With hundreds of thousands of people in Kosovo possibly on the brink of starvation, the first convoy of relief trucks bound for the Serbian province left Greece yesterday with permission to enter Kosovo but no assurances of safe passage.

Scheduled to arrive today, the trucks from the Greek affiliate of the French-based medical relief group Doctors of the World could be the vanguard of a flotilla of relief convoys that will be given permission to enter the province. But the Yugoslav government has set a condition: The relief must also flow to needy Serbian civilians as well.

An official of a European government, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Greek government -- a NATO member and a longtime friend of Serbia -- is negotiating to move as many as 10 trucks a day into Kosovo and southern Serbia, beginning in the next four or five days.

`Very difficult problem'

"We do have a very difficult problem here to figure out what to do about the refugees within Kosovo," President Clinton said yesterday in a speech to newspaper editors in San Francisco. "We are working at it, the international relief agencies are working at it, a lot of countries that have some relationship with Serbia are looking at it."

The displaced civilians within Kosovo are becoming a terrible predicament for NATO forces. The accidental killing of scores of civilians in a refugee column Wednesday only heightened NATO's sense of urgency about helping what remains of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian population still in Kosovo, even if it means opening diplomatic channels indirectly with Serbia.

The Swiss government, which has been asked to represent the interests of the United States in Belgrade, has also opened discussions with Yugoslav authorities about getting relief into Kosovo, confirmed Manuel Sager, a spokesman for the Swiss Embassy in Washington.

U.S. government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there are concerns that aid delivered to regions controlled by the military could fall into the hands of Serbian forces.

A European official involved in the aid negotiations said the first relief convoys could create an atmosphere in which some members of the NATO alliance push for a cease-fire. The official said that already, a proposal is circulating within NATO that would halt the bombing for five days in return for large-scale relief efforts. The White House strenuously rejected this proposal yesterday.

But humanitarian concerns in the United States appear to be outweighing any trepidations about new, unwanted calls for cease-fires or the possible aiding of Serbian forces that NATO is trying to isolate.

700,000 homeless Kosovars

U.S. Army Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday that up to 700,000 Kosovars are homeless and out of reach of the international relief effort.

"If there's any good news to it, it is that some of the refugees coming out -- and the intelligence that we have to date -- say that food and severe medical problems are not prevalent in those areas today," Shelton testified. "But we know that's coming, the longer they stay there."

Depending on where they have been hiding, some refugees crossing into Albania and Macedonia are drawing a more dire picture of starvation and disease already haunting the homeless Kosovar Albanians, a senior U.S. official said.

Humanitarian airdrops, such as those conducted over Bosnia in the mid-1990s, have been ruled out as unfeasible. Without NATO forces on the ground, it would be extremely difficult to direct food aid to needy Kosovars. And with Serbian air defenses still effective, Clinton said, as many as half the slow, low-flying relief planes could be shot down.

But U.S. officials are struggling to find other means.

"We have asked everybody possible to think of what they can do," said a high-ranking U.S. official. "We're willing to listen to anybody's suggestions at this point."

Belgrade is already imposing conditions on the aid that may soon flow in, said a source involved in the humanitarian relief effort. Relief agencies will have to help Serbs displaced by earlier conflicts, such as those driven out of Krajina, the formerly Serbian region of Croatia.

And there are still difficult logistical problems to be overcome. Aid organizations will need cooperation from Serbian authorities and the Kosovo Liberation Army. The European aid official said the Serbian Orthodox church in Kosovo will also have to help.

Role of Greece, church

Already, he said, the church has played a quiet but admirably impartial role, and has welcomed displaced Albanians into monasteries. This offers a distribution network that the Greeks intend to use.

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