U.N. refugees chief 'very, very worried' about Kosovars
Britain accuses Serbs of returning them by force
April 8, 1999
LONDON (CNN) -- The director of the U.N.'s refugee program said Thursday she was "very, very worried" about the fate of thousands of Kosovo refugees. Earlier in the day, Britain accused Serb forces of rounding up thousands of displaced Kosovars at the Albania-Macedonia borders and forcing them to return to the embattled Serb province.
The ethnic Albanians from Kosovo were trying to cross into those countries to escape the fighting in Yugoslavia.
"They seem now to have started rounding up refugees queuing to leave Kosovo and returning them by force," said Clare Short, British Secretary of State for International Development, at a news conference in London.
"We do not know whether they have been driven back to their homes or elsewhere within Kosovo," she said.
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata also expressed concern.
"We don't know what has happened to them. I'm very, very worried," she told a news conference in Albania.
She said she did not have any doubt that reports of rapes and other atrocities allegedly committed by Serb forces were true. Ogata said Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic had denied the refugee reports.
CNN correspondents who visited the Albania-Kosovo border Thursday said Serb forces could be seen laying what appeared to be mines just inside their territory at Morina, the main border crossing into Albania.
There were other reports of soldiers digging trenches and checking old bunkers in the area.
CNN Correspondent Mike Boettcher, who was at the Kosovo- Albania border, said thousands of Kosovars who had lined up on the Yugoslav side of the border, hoping to cross into Albania, were gone Thursday.
Boettcher said he was told that many vehicles belonging to ethnic Albanians were found abandoned, some of them burned, along the road leading to the border post.
According to Serbian media, the Kosovars returned to their homes amid assurances that it was safe to return.
U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin said Washington had "credible but not confirmed reports" that war crimes had been committed by Serb forces against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
Rubin said the U.S. government would turn over its evidence to the International War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
Ogata said she was pleased that Albania had allowed in about 300,000 refugees.
The NATO-run refugee transit centers in northern Albania -- particularly in the main camp at Kukes -- were moving people south.
Authorities told CNN Correspondent Satinger Bindra in Kukes that they were trying to move thousands of refugees to Tirana, the capital.
There were about 100,000 refugees at Kukes, and aid officials were trying to improve their living conditions, particularly sanitation. Several children were sick with measles, and there were fears that other diseases could erupt.
However, Ogata admitted that there were bottlenecks in the processing of aid supplies being flown in. Tirana airport was overcrowded because of inadequate off-loading facilities and congested air space.
Britain said conditions had improved markedly for refugees in Macedonia who were moved from squalid camps to new NATO tent cities housing about 43,000 refugees.
But London said NATO officials were worried because some of the refugees were being sent out of the country.
"We remain concerned that refugees in Macedonia are being forced onto planes and buses. This is unacceptable. We understand Macedonian concerns and will provide support to Macedonia, provided it complies with international rights and norms in its treatment of refugees," Short said.
The Macedonian authorities rejected international criticism of the way it was handling the refugees. And a government statement said there were no refugees unaccounted for.
Britain accuses Serbs of preventing Kosovars' escapes
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