Macedonia fears it could become KLA staging ground
April 16, 1999
STENKOVEC REFUGEE CAMP, Macedonia (CNN) -- The discovery of a weapons cache in Macedonia has sparked fears that the struggling Balkan nation could become a staging post for weapons bound for guerrillas in Kosovo.
Macedonian officials are also concerned that the refugee crisis will add to political instability in the region as the country struggles to feed and house tens of thousands of Kosovo refugees.
CNN Correspondent Matthew Chance was shown a stockpile of seized weapons Friday that Macedonian authorities say is the latest warning sign that the country may be trapped in the conflict between the Serb province of Kosovo and Yugoslavia.
The Kosovo Liberation Army rebels, who seek independence for Kosovo, are known to be short of weapons. In the past, they have drawn on supplies from Albania, where many ethnic Albanian Kosovars retain strong ties.
CNN traveled with a brigade of 100 KLA soldiers earlier this week who were headed into Kosovo from mountain strongholds in neighboring Albania.
KLA commanders expressed confidence that they would have the weaponry to continue their fight against Serb-led Yugoslav forces but did not reveal where the weapons would come from.
As the political woes of Macedonia loom large, so too does the stream of refugees fleeing Kosovo.
Relief officials say more than 100,000 Kosovars are heading out of the Mitroviza area, northwest of the Kosovo capital of Pristina. Pristina itself is reportedly almost a ghost town.
Refugees say Serb forces went on a rampage after NATO aircraft bombed an army barracks in Mitroviza.
"People were massacred on the streets," said one man who escaped to Albania. "All Kosovo is burning."
The weather is also turning on the refugees. Two weeks ago, as relief agencies and NATO raced to establish refugee camps, thousands were caught in the cold and rain. Now, some are collapsing from heat and dehydration.
Camp workers say they are also seeing the first signs of malnutrition among the latest arrivals -- a possible sign that food is in short supply, a situation that could also impact on the Yugoslav military.
"Serb police came into our houses and took everything. We fled into the woods to hide, but the army eventually found us and told us we had no place in Kosovo anymore. Like everyone else here, our only option was to leave for the safety of Kosovo's neighbors," a refugee at the Stenkovec refugee camp in Macedonia told CNN.
British military officials estimated Friday that about 800,000 people have been displaced in Kosovo in a reported campaign of "ethnic cleansing" by Yugoslavia. Most of the displaced are ethnic Albanians, who made up the majority of Kosovo's population before the refugee crisis began.
Along the Kosovo borders, refugees said between 100,000 and 200,000 people were on the march, trying to make it to the Albanian and Macedonian checkpoints.
"It looks as though this is beginning to escalate again," said Brig. Tim Cross, a NATO commander at the refugee camp in Stenkovec. Cross said his troops have been asked to expand the tent city there, where tens of thousands have sought shelter.
The camp at Stenkovec has enough tents to house 30,000 people. NATO troops have been providing food, water and milk to the refugees, as well as building latrines and water pipelines, Cross said.
And NATO military officials said Friday the refugees were bringing new stories of mass killings as they crossed the border.
"There are reports that thousands of young men have been murdered. I hesitate to quote a more precise estimate," said Gen. Sir Charles Guthrie, Britain's chief of staff.
In Washington, State Department spokesman James Rubin said the United States also had evidence of mass killings, but he declined to give details.
He said new information indicated Yugoslav forces had burned 400 ethnic Albanian villages and towns in Kosovo, including 45 in the last week to 10 days. A "significant mass" of people were migrating toward the province's borders, Rubin said.
As of Friday, about 321,000 people had entered Albania as refugees, he said. Another 74,000 had gone to Montenegro, and 122,000 were in Macedonia.
Correspondents Matthew Chance and Ben Wedeman contributed to this report.
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