Roaming Refugees Tilt Fragile Balkans

Montenegro sends Kosovo refugees to Albania, widening regional tension

They are the refugees nobody seems to want: some 3,200 ethnic Albanians who fled their homes in Kosovo, bounced from one village to another, then fled from Serbia to Montenegro, and finally were deported to Albania, where internal unrest has flared.

They are among at least a quarter million people forced from their homes by the violence in the southern Serbian province of Kosovo. Their story underscores a growing instability in the Balkans and foreshadows, United Nations officials say, a humanitarian crisis as winter nears.

The crisis has spread rapidly. To the west, in Bosnia, thousands of refugees from Kosovo join some 1.8 million people still displaced by that country's civil war.

For the past six months the ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo has been fighting for independence. But their challenge has been met by the Serbian security forces, who have burned some 25,000 houses and killed more than 500 people.

Among the refugees are the 3,200 who last week began their move after Serb police told them to leave their open-air camp in the western village of Istinic.

First they went northwest into the Cursed Mountains, passing through Drelje, a small village at the edge of Kosovo where young men patrol the roads with machine guns. But Drelje had nothing to offer. "We couldn't help because we barely have enough food for ourselves," explains a teacher there named Valdet.

Then the refugees trekked into Montenegro, the small republic that, along with Serbia, makes up postwar Yugoslavia. The reception there was less than inviting.

Montenegro's fear is that Kosovo may become a third republic of Yugoslavia - a compromise between Serbian desires for limited autonomy and ethnic Albanian demands for outright independence.

"That would mean that Kosovo would have the same rights as us," says Olivera Nikolic, an independent journalist in Podgorica, "and our power within the federal government would be diminished." Such a development, Ms. Nikolic says, could galvanize growing sentiment in Montenegro to break from Yugoslavia.

Though many Montenegrins consider themselves Serbs, others consider themselves a separate ethnic group and oppose any move they see as a dilution of autonomy by Belgrade.

Observers said last spring Montenegro was already beginning to look like Slovenia before it seceded from Yugoslavia in 1991, touching off the breakup of the country.

Montenegrin officials also say they have become overburdened with refugees in the past few years. They claim to have taken in some 72,000, more than half of them from Kosovo.

SO, for the first time since the crisis in Kosovo began, the Kosovars were stopped near the Montenegrin border and put on a bus for Albania - a move that has drawn criticism because the Kosovars are Yugoslav citizens and have effectively been expelled from their own country.

The United Nations refugee agency sent a letter to Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic Sept. 13 asking him to reverse his decision. Another 3,000 refugees were thought to be walking in the direction of Montenegro. And there are reports that several refugees have been killed by Serbian snipers.

The 3,200 refugees wound up in Albania, whose capital exploded into violence in recent days over the killing of reform-minded politician Azem Hajdari.

Mr. Hajdari, from the northern half of Albania bordering Kosovo, was well known for his support of Kosovo's independence movement. He belonged to the political party of Sali Berisha, the former president of Albania.

Albania itself is becoming increasingly divided between north and south. The north is out of reach of the capital, Tirana, and a general lawlessness pervades. It is also used as a base for the armed ethnic independence movement in Kosovo.

Mr. Berisha has threatened to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Fatos Nano, which has been lukewarm concerning Kosovo. Berisha blames Mr. Nano for Hajdari's murder.

Albania now threatens to implode into civil unrest, as it did more than a year ago when government arms stocks were raided and an estimated 1 million guns flooded the streets. Many of them trickled over the border into Kosovo - and supplied the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army.

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