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Crisis in Yugoslavia

Refugees May Reach Cuba Base by Friday

Shelter: Ethnic Albanians would be first of 20,000 lodged at Guantanamo Bay facility. U.S. officials stress the stay is to be temporary.

April 07, 1999|MELISSA HEALY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Clinton administration announced Tuesday that the first of 20,000 Kosovo Albanian refugees could reach makeshift shelters at a U.S. naval base in Cuba as early as Friday, continuing their flight from the fear, chaos and cold of the war-torn Balkans.

Stressing that the refugees' welcome is strictly temporary, U.S. officials said that military personnel have begun to erect a tent city on the Guantanamo Bay U.S. Navy base, perched on the arid southeastern corner of Cuba, to house ethnic Albanians ejected from their homes by Serbian forces.

The number of refugees that the United States has agreed to house and feed represents about 5% of the nearly half a million ethnic Albanians who have fled Kosovo since the beginning of the crisis. But experts say that never before has an operation flown so many refugees so far from their homes.

For those making the trip, the Guantanamo Bay camp will be in every way a world apart. The refugees will fly more than 10 hours in military transport planes and civil airliners to the glare and heat of the Caribbean tropics. There, officials say, they will be housed in tents that accommodate 18 to 19 people on cots and will be served--initially at least--a diet of field rations and military-style chow produced by U.S. service personnel.

The name of the U.S. operation is "Sustained Hope." Defense Department officials estimated that it will take about 45 days to complete work on the camp and fill it with refugees.

For ethnic Albanians accustomed to the wooded hills and plains of Kosovo, a southern province of Serbia, the dominant republic in Yugoslavia, "Gitmo," as the base at Guantanamo is called, will be a substantial shock: Arid and rocky, it gets little rain, and there is virtually no respite from the sun, especially as summer approaches. The United States has had a lease on the land since 1903.

The naval base has been used before for refugees, providing shelter for Haitians and Cubans who fled their countries in 1991 and 1995, respectively. In those instances, U.S. military personnel hung a giant cargo parachute from a single telephone pole, providing the only shady area in which large crowds could congregate.

Administration officials said they hope these refugees will be gone long before restlessness could turn to violence. After months of detention within the camp's confines, both Haitian and Cuban refugees launched uprisings that had to be quelled by armed U.S. military units.

Brian Atwood, the State Department official coordinating the U.S. refugee effort, acknowledged that even as the ethnic Albanians huddle in wretched conditions just over the borders from their war-torn province, few appear eager to make the crossing to Guantanamo.

U.S. officials said that for now, refugees will be transported to Guantanamo only if they volunteer.

Most of them will come from the estimated 90,000 people who in recent weeks have poured into Macedonia, a country that feels overburdened and is very reluctant to accept more refugees.

"We're going to have to do a bit of an education job" to recruit refugees to go, Atwood said.

He added that in recruiting volunteers to go to Guantanamo, aid officials will seek to give priority to keeping families, and where possible, communities, together.

"The military is doing everything possible to create conditions that would send the message that these people are guests of the United States. But it's not an ideal situation," Atwood said. "We wanted to make sure we sent the message that this was a very temporary solution to the problem."

Once at Guantanamo, officials acknowledged, the refugees will exist in legal limbo: They have been offered "temporary refuge" on a piece of land considered to be under U.S. jurisdiction but separated from the continental United States by roughly 400 miles of treacherous ocean.

Beyond that, officials said, the Kosovo Albanians are not being granted the same status Haitian and Cuban refugees had when they were given shelter at Guantanamo. During those earlier crises, the naval base served as an application station for those applying for political asylum in the United States.

Atwood said it was not clear whether refugees housed at Guantanamo would even be able to visit relatives in the United States.

"What we're trying to do is to send a message both to the refugees and to [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic that this is a very temporary solution to the problem," Atwood said.

Also Tuesday, U.S. officials continued organizing "Operation Shining Hope," which is expected to deliver about 500,000 tons of food, tents, sleeping bags and other humanitarian relief supplies for Kosovo refugees in Albania and Macedonia. The goods are to be flown by transport planes operating out of Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, Calif., and Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Fact Sheet: Guantanamo Bay

The United States is planning to temporarily house 20,000 Kosovo refugees behind the barbed-wire fences of its naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

HISTORY

The Guantanamo base was established by treaty with Cuba in 1903 as a result of the Spanish-American War, and it was expanded during World War II. The United States has rights to it indefinitely and pays rent of about $4,000 monthly to the government of Fidel Castro.

* Refugees from Kosovo housed at Guantanamo will be unable to apply for political asylum, as they would be if housed in U.S.

* The 28,000-acre facility serves as main quarters for 1,000 U.S.service personnel.

* Minefields surround the base, and an area 15 miles wide along the perimeter is a Cuban military zone with restricted access.

* The base is equipped to handle about 1,300 refugees now, though work has begun on housing for the incoming ethnic Albanians.

Sources: Times staff and wire reports; compiled by PAMELA WILSON / Los Angeles Times

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