Refugees run into bad weather entering Albania, Macedonia

Relief workers brace for `a huge movement'

April 18, 1999|By COX NEWS SERVICE

KUKES, Albania -- Heavy rain pelted refugees crossing into Albania and Macedonia throughout the morning yesterday, and blasting winds ripped the plastic sheeting many tried to use as shields, as the swell of exiles continued under a protracted Serbian campaign of "ethnic cleansing."

In Albania, international relief agencies struggled vainly to keep up with the growing numbers of people and vehicles, as the day's intake of refugees neared 20,000. Fewer than 3,000 refugees entered Macedonia at two border crossings by nightfall yesterday, compared with more than 12,000 who entered from Kosovo on Thursday and Friday.

Humanitarian relief workers and NATO continued to brace for a new, massive influx. They erected thousands of tents to expand the capacity of the camps.

Newly arrived refugees continued to report that "a huge movement" of ethnic Albanians within Kosovo is working its way toward the borders of Albania and Macedonia, said Paula Ghedini, spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Macedonian government officials and international relief workers have said as many as 100,000 new refugees could cross into Macedonia over the next several days.

Macedonia's government has said it can take no more than 20,000 refugees because of the strain on its poor economy and delicate ethnic balance.

"This could destabilize Macedonia permanently," warned Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski in an interview yesterday with Cox News Service.

Ghedini said that UNHCR may reassess its stated goal of keeping most of the refugees in neighboring countries. "We see possibly the need to evacuate more people in a faster period of time," she said.

In the meantime, the numbers being squeezed into hastily built tents continues to swell.

"It's a big tragedy, a disaster. Nobody is left," said Sokoi Byrami, 32, shortly arriving in Albania. "All Kosovo is covered by flames."

Aid officials monitoring incoming refugees said they are receiving more reports of babies dying and being buried along the road in Kosovo. Yesterday, they began hearing of adults left dying en route, because they were too weak from lack of food and the exhausting walk, said Angela Walker, spokeswoman for the U.N. World Food Program.

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