NATO is quietly helping Greek relief effort in Kosovo

Supplies for refugees aren't targeted, though some recipients are Serbs

April 28, 1999|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- As NATO grapples with how to aid the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Albanians trapped inside Kosovo, the Greek government is trucking tons of food and medicine into the beleaguered province and may soon be joined in that work by a Baltimore-based charity.

NATO has become something of a silent partner in the Greek effort -- which is also aiding Serbs in the troubled province. NATO officials have been told when and where the relief convoys are heading so they won't be bombed by mistake.

In the past 10 days, the Greek government has spearheaded an effort to move dozens of trucks that are carrying food and medical supplies through Macedonia into Pristina, Kosovo's capital. By the end of this week, 400 tons of supplies in 40 trucks will have reached the city, said Alex Rondos, an adviser to the Greek foreign minister.

Rondos said International Orthodox Christian Charities, the Baltimore-based humanitarian agency of Eastern Orthodox Christians worldwide, would soon be helping in the efforts.

Future help uncertain

The charity has been providing humanitarian aid in Kosovo since 1993, though its operations ceased last month when the allied bombings began. Mark Hodde, a spokesman for the charities, said he was uncertain when its 25 regional staff members would begin to offer help.

Though a NATO member, Greece has been a reluctant supporter of the alliance's bombing campaign. Serbia and Greece share Eastern Orthodox Christian religious ties. Serbia is the dominante partner in the two-nation Yugoslav federation.

Last week, the Greek government received permission from Yugoslav officials to be the sole conduit for assistance from a variety of nongovernment organizations, such as the French-based Doctors of the World.

Several European countries are also beginning to offer aid, Rondos said, though he offered no specifics. An official with the U.S. Agency for International Development said the United States is "still looking at several options" to help those inside Kosovo.

"We are trying to expand this whole operation, mobilizing all available networks," said Achilles Paparsenos, a spokesman for the Greek Embassy in Washington. "It's having an impact, but it's a small-scale impact."

Want to reach 400,000

In coming weeks, the Greek government hopes to see the convoys enlarged to assist as many as 400,000 refugees in Kosovo.

U.S. Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, the supreme NATO commander, estimated yesterday that the province contained 820,000 displaced ethnic Albanians, some corralled into certain areas by Serbian troops.

There is no estimate on the number of Serbs who are displaced or receiving assistance, although ethnic Albanians make up 90 percent of the 1.8 million in the Serbian province.

"We've only just dipped our toes in the water of need," said Rondos, the adviser to the Greek foreign minister.

The Greek convoys are allowed access only to displaced refugees in areas controlled by the Serbs, lest the supplies fall into the hands of the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army.

But Yugoslav officials have given assurances that all refugees who need help can receive it, Rondos said, adding: "That's the technical way of saying [ethnic] Albanians get help."

Equal treatment

Most of the relief effort so far has centered on the hospital in Pristina. Rondos denied criticism that the Greeks are helping only Serbs. "[The hospital] was as full of Albanians as it was of Serbs," he said.

James Hooper, a former State Department official who is executive director of Balkan Action Council, a nonprofit education group, speculated that the Greek relief effort is aimed at maintaining ties with Yugoslavia while also supporting NATO.

"They've shown they're a good NATO ally by signing off on the bombing," said Hooper. "They're trying to be good neighbors by balancing what they're doing militarily."

Hooper also noted that the convoys make good sense with regard to domestic politics in Greece, where the public strongly supports Serbia. Moreover, Greek officials may try to postion themselves as possible mediators to the conflict.

Still, Hooper welcomed the relief convoys, even though they were likely to offer assistance to the Serbs as well.

During the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bosnian Serbs often took 20 percent of any U.N. humanitarian relief supplies, he said.

Paparsenos, the spokesman for the Greek Embassy, said the humanitarian effort will help the Kosovar Albanians mostly. And despite religious ties with Yugoslavia, there is no "Orthodox axis."

`Humanitarian tragedy'

"It's not the Yugoslav government we're helping; it's people who are desperately in need, the Kosovar Albanians," he said. "We have a humanitarian tragedy there."

About 70,000 refugees are hiding out on a road between Pristina and Podujevo, said Lirak Celaj, a Kosovo Liberation Army soldier, in a telephone call from northeastern Kosovo, near the Serbian border. Their food supply is precarious, he said.

"Nobody has food for a week," Celaj said. "They just find food from day to day."

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