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Crisis in Yugoslavia

A Silence Settles Along Borders as Refugees Vanish

Balkans: Mysterious overnight disappearance of tens of thousands comes amid intensified NATO bombing. New initiative offers hope that U.S. soldiers could be freed.

April 08, 1999|JOHN DANISZEWSKI and ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

MORINE, Albania — Where once the cacophony of terror and despair rang out, the eerie sound of silence echoed across two countries Wednesday as thousands upon thousands of Kosovo Albanian refugees at Yugoslav border points with both Albania and Macedonia simply vanished in the night.

At this mountain border post, a miles-long line of refugees who had been waiting for days to get into Albania was gone Wednesday, leaving humanitarian officials frantic that in closing the main exit from Kosovo, Yugoslav authorities had decided to hang on to tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians to use as hostages or human shields against future NATO attacks.

On Tuesday, more than 24,000 people had poured across the bridge at Morine into Albania. On Wednesday, after the Yugoslavs shut off the flow, the grand total was 27. "They didn't keep them in the country in order to host them at the Intercontinental Hotel in Belgrade," said Jacques Franquin, a spokesman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

The scene was uncannily similar in neighboring Macedonia.

The big crisis for days on end had been the Blace border zone, where at one point as many as 65,000 people had been kept in a muddy valley by armed Macedonian guards as the authorities slowly admitted them into the country. But with the cover of night Tuesday, Macedonian authorities moved the last refugees--at least 20,000, if not 30,000--from the border area.

The mysterious mass movements of the refugees came as NATO forces stepped up their aerial bombardment of Yugoslavia on Wednesday and a surprise initiative from the Yugoslav side gave hope that three captured U.S. soldiers might be released as early as today.

Cyprus' acting president, Spyros Kyprianou, was headed to Belgrade this morning with the mission of arranging a hand-over. U.S. officials warned that Washington would accept no conditions for the captives' release.

The intensified bombing acquired a new focus Wednesday as NATO cited a successful attack on a Yugoslav military convoy in Kosovo as an example of how it could help avert the Serbian campaign of killing and "ethnic cleansing" against Kosovo's Albanians. Concentrating on ground forces in Kosovo, NATO jets flew 439 sorties in day and night bombing raids beginning Tuesday, the Pentagon said.

But not all NATO arms struck intended targets. In the provincial capital, Pristina, 10 civilians were reported killed after rockets struck.

Yet as the Balkans witnessed another day of violence and unimaginable human misery, it was the overnight disappearance of tens of thousands of refugees that seemed most shocking.

Of the refugees who were evacuated from the Blace border zone, the Macedonian government announced that it had sent almost 10,000 in bus convoys to Albania. Albanian television said that about 10,000 refugees ended up in a stadium in the Albanian town of Korce near the border with Macedonia.

Others were put on airplanes bound for Turkey, and still more were jammed into buses that headed for Greece and possibly Hungary. At the Greek border, buses crowded with 7,000 to 10,000 people were refused entry, a U.N. official said, and turned for Albania.

Some of the refugees also went to camps in Macedonia, but several thousand others were still unaccounted for, according to U.N. refugee agency spokeswoman Paula Ghedini.

"In a situation of mass confusion . . . the Macedonian government began moving refugees from the border to other countries, some of them against their will," U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said in New York.

In their haste to empty the border zone, Macedonian soldiers and police apparently moved the population away from the frontier without giving people the choice of where they would go and without concern for whether families were staying together, Ghedini said.

Valuables that refugees are highly unlikely to leave behind--passports, baby food, small bundles of belongings--remained in Blace on Wednesday with heaps of trash, thousands of makeshift tents and a lingering stench.

"We do have quite a bit of concern that there was some degree of pressure" put on the refugees as they were transported out of Blace, said Ghedini, whose group is organizing the international relief effort. "We strongly condemn involuntary relocating that took place."

The most frequent complaint has been that soldiers forced some family members onto one bus and told the others to wait for the next bus. The buses did not always go to the same location.

Macedonian officials defended their actions, stressing that their tiny country had been overwhelmed by the influx of more than 100,000 refugees in a few days and did the best job it could.

"Blace was the urgent problem to be dealt with, and we dealt with it," Macedonian Deputy Prime Minister Radmila Kiprijanova told a news conference in Skopje.

"None of the refugees have been forced to the buses," she said. "There is no complete registry of these people because the most important thing was to shelter them."

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