April 10, 1999
BRAZDE, Macedonia (CNN) -- The flow of refugees across Yugoslavia's frontiers has eased, allowing relief agencies in the country's Balkan neighbors to better accommodate them, a U.S. diplomat said Saturday.
Many of those who make it to refugee camps in Macedonia and Albania are bringing with them stories of violence in the Serbian province of Kosovo -- reports that a Yugoslav diplomat in the United States denied Saturday.
But a top humanitarian official said there was "no question" that atrocities, including mass rape and killings, were being committed in Kosovo.
Brian Atwood, the U.S. coordinator for Kosovo relief, said Yugoslavia closed off its borders earlier this week so stories of atrocities wouldn't get out.
"There is no question that people that have been driven back into the country are being used as human shields," Atwood said. "We have seen evidence of tank columns moving along the road, with refugees walking on both sides of the tanks, so there is no question they are being used for human shields."
Vladislav Jovanovic, the Yugoslav charge d'affaires at the United States, said the reports are false.
"It is not our intention. It is entirely one fabrication," Jovanovic said.
Ethnic Albanian guerrillas from the Kosovo Liberation Army use human shields, he said. "in order to make more victims and to protect themselves against our security forces."
But NATO governments are giving increasing credence to the refugees' stories, warning that any evidence of war crimes will be turned over to an international tribunal.
Atwood said relief efforts are now focusing on getting aid to refugees rather than amassing supplies.
"We are setting up the food pipeline and making sure that the medicine and the doctors are in place," he said.
"We are talking about dealing with now 500,000 people -- that's a very large city," Atwood said. "These people are spread all over the place in Macedonia and Albania, and several thousand in Montenegro."
William Walker, chief of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's observer mission in Kosovo, said Saturday that the atmosphere in some refugee camps in neighboring countries was "upbeat."
Walker, who has been monitoring the refugee camps since his mission left Kosovo ahead of NATO bombs, said he was impressed by the refugees' resolve, despite the hardships they've faced.
Walker said there were enough tents to accommodate refugees and that the medical problems were not as serious as once feared.
"I was impressed with a relatively upbeat mode in the camp, that these people are convinced that they're going back (to Kosovo)," he said.
Late Saturday, a new column of about 3,000 Kosovars in tractors, trucks and other vehicles stretched more than a mile near the province's border with Albania. The border opened about 9 p.m. (3 p.m. ET) and the flow of refugees picked up.
Refugees began arriving in Albania again Friday, when Yugoslavia reopened its border with a sudden burst of lights.
A caravan of cars and tractors loaded with refugees crossed into Albanian territory. Then the lights went off on the Yugoslav side, and it was unclear whether the border would be re-opened again.
About 80 bedraggled ethnic Albanian refugees sneaked across the Kosovo border into Macedonia on Saturday, saying they had been walking for days to escape the territory with their lives. They joined the 25,000 to 30,000 others who entered the refugee camp at Stenkovec last week.
Some refugees said Macedonian guards arrested them, and in some cases, beat them when they tried to enter that country by skirting the border controls.
"They only hit me once, but this man here got a good beating," said Sabri, 54, pointing at his friend Hamid, 32, whose face appeared badly bruised.
None who arrived Saturday of them knew the fate of missing neighbors or relatives.
Many of the thousands of refugees are signing up to go to European countries that have offered safe haven, but most want to return to their homes inside Yugoslavia.
When they will be able to do so -- perhaps with an international peacekeeping force in place -- remains to be seen.
"They certainly want protection when they go back, but they want to go back," Walker said.
Regarding the conditions in the camps, Walker said NATO and aid organizations had mobilized quickly to feed and shelter the refugees.
"It is obviously harsh living conditions, but people have been saved as far as their lives," he said. "It's rough, but it's moving along, and it's getting better each day."
Yugoslavia reopens border, expels Kosovars into Albania
Extensive list of Kosovo-related sites
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