Aid Groups Face Roadblocks In Bid to Ease Kosovo Strife

Thwarted By Belgrade?

What lies behind the police barricades, nobody knows.

The Drenica region of Yugoslavia's independence-seeking Kosovo province has been sealed off for almost two weeks since police conducted a crackdown that killed dozens of ethnic Albanians.

"More people may have been killed or wounded, but we just don't know," says Franois Fille, head of mission in Kosovo for the Paris-based Doctors Without Borders. "We keep asking the police to let us in, but they keep saying, 'No.' "

United Nations human rights chief Mary Robinson said yesterday she had asked Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to allow a UN investigator to visit Kosovo soon.

Drenica has a predominantly ethnic Albanian population. The region has remained under the close watch of the Serbian police, who say they are still seeking members of the separatist Kosovo Liberation Army.

Only the town of Srbica has been opened, but access there remains extremely limited. As the international community steps up pressure on the Serbian government to enter a dialogue with ethnic Albanian leaders, the barring of humanitarian workers is becoming a central issue.

A Serbian delegation arrived in Kosovo yesterday for surprise talks with ethnic Albanians on the future of the province, but called them off when the other side, dubbing the effort a ploy to mollify the international community, failed to show up.

In a March 10 visit to Kosovo, US diplomat Robert Gelbard called for the "provision of complete access for all humanitarian organizations" to all parts of Kosovo, with the implication that the international community would impose new sanctions on Yugoslavia if that and other conditions were not met. Humanitarian-aid access was also a condition set by the six-member Contact Group on the former Yugoslavia when it met last week in London.

So far the Serbs have not budged.

The largest and most influential humanitarian aid presence in Kosovo, the International Red Cross, recently moved all its non-Yugoslav workers out of the region. "We received very serious death threats over the telephone," says Jasmina Petrovic, a Red Cross spokeswoman in Belgrade.

Ms. Petrovic says some local workers remain in Kosovo, but they too have been denied access to Drenica for what Serbian officials call "security reasons."

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees sent the Yugoslav government a request for access on March 9, but there has been no response, says Thomas Vargas, the head of the field office in Pristina.

"We can't even assess the situation," Mr. Vargas says.

A Western analyst in the Balkans, however, says some information has managed to seep through the police roadblocks, where heavily armed policemen are backed by armored personnel carriers.

"There are reports that people are dying because they cannot receive treatment," the analyst says.

The situation is exacerbated by the centralization and bureaucracy of the Yugoslav government in Belgrade. Local government officials are unable to act on anything without explicit permission from Belgrade.

"Everything moves slower because of Belgrade," says the analyst, who requested anonymity. "It allows people in the lower positions to say they're just following orders. Then the people at the top can say, 'I didn't say that, I didn't tell anyone to kill five-year-old children.' "

Many of the aid organizations, of which there are about a dozen, say they are unable to protest the situation because they are operating here without permission from the government. "It's not a good thing to pressure the authorities," says Mr. Fille of Doctors Without Borders. "We could be gone tomorrow."

Several local newspaper reporters in Pristina, however, have been critical of the aid workers for not pressing the issue. Some reporters were able to get into Drenica in the first few days after last week's crackdown, though they have since been cut off.

"This bothers me not as a journalist, but as an [ethnic] Albanian," says one reporter at the Pristina independent daily Koha Ditore. "We risked our lives trying to get in there to do our jobs. I don't see the aid workers doing the same."

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