Serbian refugee exodus from Kosovo hits 75,000

Yugoslav Red Cross says food, supplies are running short


BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Fearing vengeance from returning Kosovo Albanians, about a quarter of the Serbs in Kosovo -- more than 75,000 -- have fled the province in the 18 days since Serbian forces began pulling out of the province, according to officials from the Yugoslav Red Cross.

Those officials said they were running short of food and other supplies to care for a flood of refugees that they did not expect and are not prepared to handle.

The senior official in Belgrade for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said the plight of the Serbs who have become refugees inside Serbia is urgent, although not yet desperate. He said, too, that the world has an obligation to act quickly to help the homeless Serbs this summer, just as it acted in the spring to help Albanians chased out of Kosovo.

"There is a risk the international community will not maintain its objectivity and sensitivity," said Eduardo Arbleda, the representative for the refugee agency.

The Serbs, running from what aid officials in Kosovo describe as a dangerous and unstable situation, are the latest in a seemingly endless and invariably miserable series of forced mass migrations that have characterized life in the former Yugoslavia during a decade of ethnic war.

The trigger for this latest exodus, which is sending most of the Serbs into impoverished towns in central Serbia where factories and bridges have been pounded by NATO bombs, was the success of the alliance's effort to undo the forced exodus of nearly 1 million Albanians from Kosovo.

Albanians seek vengeance

Reassured by the presence of NATO forces, more than 415,000 Kosovo Albanians have returned, and hundreds of thousands more are expected in coming weeks. But aid officials say that many of them are coming back with their hearts set on vengeance and that the 21,000 NATO troops deployed so far are not enough to guarantee the safety of Serbian civilians.

"The Serbs are very much under siege and very much want to get out," Dennis McNamara, the special envoy to the Balkans for the U.N. refugee agency, said by phone from Pristina, the Kosovo capital.

The agency estimated last week that 50,000 Serbs had fled Kosovo for Serbia. But Arbleda, the agency's chief here in Belgrade, said the 75,000 figure given yesterday by officials from the Yugoslav Red Cross is probably more accurate.

All these numbers, aid officials say, are rough estimates because of the confused flow of people in Kosovo.

The flood of Serbs into Serbia has pushed the government of President Slobodan Milosevic into an awkward corner.

Stretching relief agencies

This country is destitute, with unemployment surging this year to more than 33 percent and the government unable to pay many salaries and pensions. The unexpected arrival of tens of thousands of homeless people in Serbia proper -- after the half million Serbs who came here after fleeing Croatia and Bosnia in the middle of the decade and who still receive aid -- is pushing the capacity of Serbian relief agencies to the breaking point.

"I am not an optimist," said Rade Dubajic, secretary-general of the Yugoslav Red Cross. "We can expect very hard and difficult times. Donors are mostly concentrated on Kosovo. They are not so interested in the rest of Yugoslavia."

Truth not coming out

Yet the Milosevic government has refused to level with the Serbian people about the size of the refugee problem. It continues to sell military defeat in Kosovo as victory.

State television has soft-pedaled the severe security problems that are forcing Serbs from Kosovo. Again last night, television emphasized that many Kosovo Serbs were returning home and that the security situation was improving -- an impression that aid officials in Kosovo say is grossly misleading.

Under pressure from the government, Serbian aid officials are appealing for international help for the refugee problem, but they are not allowed to quantify the size of the problem, at least publicly.

"We are not presenting the numbers of Serbian refugees for psychological reasons, because if those Serbs remaining in Kosovo heard the numbers, they might also leave," said Dubajic, who refused any comment on how many Serbs have fled Kosovo.

An official for the International Committee of the Red Cross said yesterday that food and relief supplies were being trucked this week to central Serbian cities that are in acute need and that more supplies were on their way from Western Europe.

"You might have a shortage here and there," said Dominique Dufour. "But aid is on its way."

The Milosevic government has asked the U.N. refugee agency to help it return Serbs to Kosovo, but so far that request is not being acted on.

"These people just got to Serbia, and we want to verify that they want to come back to Kosovo and that it is safe for them to do so," McNamara said.

Pushing for return to Kosovo

Opposition party leaders said yesterday that Serbs from Kosovo were under pressure by the Milosevic government to go back to Kosovo, even though they are afraid to do so.

In the central Serbian city of Kragujevac Sunday, a number of Serbs from Kosovo said they would consider going back to their homes only if large numbers of Serbian policemen returned with them.

Under the terms of the peace deal that Milosevic signed with NATO, the Serbian police will be allowed back into Kosovo only to guard monasteries and other Serbian historical landmarks.

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