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NATO Begins Relocating Refugees

May 25, 1999

KUKES, Albania (AP) _ Citing possible attacks from nearby Serb forces, NATO began relocating 30,000 Kosovo refugees today from Albania’s northern border to safer camps deeper inside the country.

In one of several recent incidents, U.N. spokesman Rupert Colville noted that two bullets fired from inside Kosovo struck the refugee reception center at the Albanian border Monday night.

``We’re trying to empty these camps as soon as possible for a whole variety of reasons. The most important is danger,″ said Colville, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

The relocation began with 204 refugees carrying meager belongings setting off in military trucks on a 24-hour road and rail journey to a U.S.-run camp in the south.

``The hope is that once the momentum starts the numbers will increase,″ Colville said. ``We’re strongly encouraging them.″

Departing families were reluctant to move farther from their homeland but volunteered to go because of the potential danger and hopes for better camp conditions in the south.

``We are going because of fear,″ said Zepe Kajtasi, 25, her eyes moist with tears as she boarded one of 10 military trucks for the 210-mile journey to Camp Hope. She and 12 members of her family fled Kosovo after Serbian forces torched their house in the town of Djakovica, she said.

NATO spokesman Helge Eriksen said plans called for moving up to 1,000 refugees a day, which would clear the camps around Kukes within several weeks.

But this would leave some 70,000 Kosovo refugees still living with Albanian families or in informal encampments around this town of 30,000.

According to the UNHCR, more than 439,000 ethnic Albanians from Kosovo have sought shelter in Albania.

The refugees were escorted today by Belgian, Dutch and Polish troops attached to NATO’s 1,300-strong Task Force Romeo, charged with tackling refugee problems in Albania.

They were to be trucked to Mjede in northern Albania and then taken by train to Fier, near which Camp Hope is located. The U.S. military built camp is being expanded to house up to 20,000 refugees from a current capacity of 3,000, Eriksen said.

``I think it would be a mistake to think the general refugee population is against moving just because there is a small vocal opposition,″ Colville said. ``We are not going to force anybody. We hope they will see the light.″

While many refugees simply wish to remain as close to Kosovo as possible, guerrillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army find the refugee concentration in the north a rich recruiting ground.

Although vastly outgunned and confined to small enclaves, the KLA continues to fight against Serb forces inside Kosovo.

Colville cited the involvement of the KLA with the refugees around Kukes as one reason behind the southward move. Others were a shortage of water and the prospect of refugees enduring sub-zero temperatures in tents after the onset of winter.

``We don’t want them here by winter,″ he said.

The UNHCR plans to bring some of the relocated refugees back to Kukes to spread the word that camp conditions in the south are indeed superior.

For Ahmet Rama, a 40-year-old metallurgical engineer, it was just another move in a year of wandering inside Kosovo after he watched his home in Kosovska Mitrovica set afire by the Serbs.

``I worked for 15 years to build my house and the Serbs burned it down in five minutes,″ he said. Now, he and his 10-member family had only a few clothes, some blankets and food for the journey.

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