Refugee crisis mounts, pressing NATO

Ethnic Albanians exit Kosovo in waves that recall World War II. Tales

In what appears to be Serb action to "ethnically cleanse" Kosovo, ethnic Albanians fled the province yesterday - at the rate of thousands by the hour - telling tales of slaughter back in their villages.

So far, international relief workers say they can cope with the refugee flow, but as the war over Kosovo continues, they warn that Europe faces one of its worst refugee crises since the Bosnia crisis in the early 1990s.

Both the level of killings and the refugee flow into neighboring countries has raised political pressure on NATO to go beyond airstrikes and send ground troops to Kosovo.

The European Union has promised more assistance to the refugees beyond $21.6 million already approved.

"Food and medicine are holding up, but they won't much longer if the refugees come [in the same numbers] as last night," says Christopher Dwan of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), in the Albanian capital, Tirana.

Refugees were crossing into the tiny Albanian mountain town of Kukes at the rate of 4,000 an hour on Monday. Up to 70,000 Kosovar Albanians have fled to Albania so far, many traveling by tractors, cars, and horse-drawn wagons. Thousands more have fled into Macedonia, and relief officials say another 150,000 Kosovars may be heading for the border. Kosovo's population is estimated at about 2 million.

Refugees have told relief workers unconfirmed stories of atrocities and said that many thousands of refugees will follow.

"There was chaos this morning but the relief effort seems to be working well now," says Owen O'Sullivan, head of the OSCE Kukes office. The first buses of refugees were loaded last night and added to UN convoys in an effort to disperse refugees and prevent problems along the border. Emergency food supplies are being rushed to Kukes as bakeries have run out of flour. The townspeople have opened their doors to provide shelter, packing as many as 50 refugees into a single small apartment.

The refugees are arriving with little or nothing. Serb soldiers have generally stripped them of any valuables before sending them to the Albanian border. NATO spokesman Jamie Shea said Serb border guards routinely confiscate passports and other documents, and demand about $1,800 per vehicle as it passes through the border.

The story that refugees tell are of even worse personal tragedies. The Rexhcpi family of the Kosovo town of Celin told humanitarian workers in Kukes that 10 men in their family hid in the cellar when Serb police arrived. The police found them and shot them, including a 13-year-old boy.

In another unconfirmed report, all 13 members of a Celin family, including women and children, were shot by Serb police.

"We have to recognize that we are now on the brink of a major humanitarian disaster ... the likes of which we have not seen in Europe since the closing days of World War II," Mr. Shea said.

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