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Crisis in Yugoslavia

Up to 30,000 Refugees Flee Kosovo in Single Day

Balkans: Displaced ethnic Albanians are weaker and sicker than earlier arrivals. NATO cites Serbs' brutality for surge, including reports of two more mass killings.

April 18, 1999|JOEL HAVEMANN and ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

BRUSSELS — Refugees poured out of Kosovo on Saturday at a rate that officials said would soon empty the Serbian province of its ethnic Albanians, and NATO said the flood was loosed by some of the most vicious tactics yet pursued by the forces of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

As many as 23,000 refugees crossed into Albania on Saturday, and 7,000 more of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians escaped into Macedonian refugee camps that a hard rain had turned into muddy pits. Serbian guards turned back as many as 3,000 others at the Macedonian border because they lacked passports, a new policy that split many families.

For the most part, Saturday's new arrivals--many of whom probably have been living in the open since being expelled from their homes weeks ago--were weaker and sicker than the hundreds of thousands of refugees who preceded them. Those who crossed into Macedonia were crammed as many as 100 to a shelter after having spent up to five days crossing steep mountain passes on foot.

And these, NATO spokesman Jamie Shea suggested, were the lucky ones. Refugees told of two recent instances of mass killings inside Kosovo, one claiming 60 lives and the other 45, Shea said, and alliance reconnaissance planes have spotted evidence of several new mass graves.

"Some refugees have even reported that Kosovar Albanians have been forced to dig these mass graves and put the bodies in," Shea said. Since NATO began its bombing campaign 25 days ago to stop "ethnic cleansing," the alliance estimates that 3,200 people have been killed in Kosovo.

At the Albanian border post of Morine, refugees were arriving at the rate of up to 1,000 an hour on Saturday, only to find refugee camps already full.

"I can't believe what I'm seeing," said Dutch police officer Den Ouden, who was assisting Albanian border guards. "For three days, I've seen this line of people. I can't imagine what they've been through."

It was not clear why, after recently choking off the exodus of refugees, Milosevic's forces had increased the expulsions into Macedonia again.

But the North Atlantic Treaty Organization said that rebels from the Kosovo Liberation Army, or KLA, which has continued to fight the Serbs, also had managed to open a corridor for trapped refugees to escape to the Albanian border. The NATO officials did not elaborate.

Among the refugees who crossed into Albania on Saturday was a young couple who pushed a baby carriage holding their infant son and the family possessions they managed to save.

"Someday, I'm going to tell my son that our land is very valuable, and that all that blood lost by KLA soldiers meant freedom for us," said the young mother, 22-year-old Naallbani Baruti.

Her 24-year-old husband, Ylli, had hidden among a group of women to avoid capture by Serbian soldiers. He vowed to return one day to their hometown, Djakovica, in western Kosovo, a southern province of Serbia, the dominant republic in Yugoslavia.

Joining the KLA on Saturday were more than 100 Albanian Americans who arrived in the Albanian capital, Tirana. They ranged in age from a 70-year-old man to a 16-year-old girl.

Yugoslav forces appear able to roust people from their homes practically at will despite what NATO insists has been an extremely successful bombing campaign.

Ethnic Albanians made up about 90% of Kosovo's 2 million people, but the U.N. refugee agency has estimated that no more than 600,000 of the ethnic Albanians who lived in Kosovo in 1991 remain there.

Some fled during a year of fighting between Serbian forces and the KLA that preceded the NATO bombing campaign. More than 550,000 have fled since the bombing started, including more than 100,000 to Macedonia and more than 300,000 to Albania.

The reason for the Yugoslavs' apparent success, alliance officials indicated Saturday, lies in the mismatch between NATO's air war and the nature of "ethnic cleansing."

Because NATO fears a public backlash against its aerial campaign if Yugoslav antiaircraft batteries kill even a single pilot, its planes have been releasing their bombs only from high altitudes. From a typical altitude of 15,000 feet, the planes can take out air defense systems, oil depots, transportation lines, command-and-control facilities and even some tanks--but not the bulk of the Yugoslav forces themselves.

The Pentagon has determined that NATO strikes have begun to hurt Yugoslavia's air defense system, which is no longer as "robust" or "sophisticated" as it was, said Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles Wald, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

But the Yugoslav military has been able to "patch things up," Wald said. "They still have a very dangerous and capable air defense system."

"We cannot totally prevent ethnic cleansing," said Italian air force Brig. Gen. Giuseppe Marani, especially if NATO puts a high premium on avoiding civilian casualties. "But I wouldn't at all say that there is not much we can do to prevent ethnic cleansing with air power."

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