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Rugova Welcomed by Kosovo Refugees

May 26, 1999

BLACE, Macedonia (AP) _ Receiving a hero’s welcome from thousands of exhausted Kosovo refugees, moderate ethnic Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova appealed Wednesday for a swift deployment of NATO troops in Kosovo to ensure the return of the displaced.

Chanting ``Rugova, Rugova,″ tired but smiling Kosovo refugees were rubbing shoulders to get as close as possible to their leader, trailing him throughout the Blace and Stenkovec refugee camps near Macedonia’s border with Kosovo.

Rugova’s visit to the camps was the first since Serbs started systematically expelling Kosovo Albanians two months ago, when NATO began its air campaign against Yugoslavia.

Initially, Rugova remained in Yugoslavia, apparently under house arrest in Kosovo. He has provided few details of his reported detention since he showed up in Italy earlier this month.

``I am so happy that he is alive and here with us,″ said an old man in the Blace transit camp, where about 30,000 refugees have arrived in recent days _ the biggest influx since early May.

U.N. aid officials have been negotiating with Macedonia’s reluctant government for permission to expand the seven main refugee camps.

``In a few days, every possible square foot of space in the camps will be taken and people will be living on top of each other again,″ Kris Janowski, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said in Geneva.

Of about 830,000 ethnic Albanians who have fled or been driven from the province, Macedonia has accepted about 252,000 _ roughly one-tenth of its population.

Macedonia, with its own substantial minority of ethnic Albanians, worries that the arrivals could upset the ethnic balance and possibly lead to unrest.

Rugova thanked the Macedonian government for helping the refugees and said he was working to secure their return.

``We are demanding that NATO forces go into Kosovo as soon as possible to provide security for all the citizens of Kosovo,″ he told the refugees at Blace camp.

NATO says it has no intention of invading the embattled Serb province, but on Tuesday, it announced plans to send 50,000 peacekeeping troops if Serb forces withdraw.

``We should be optimistic because the world is with us. We are no longer alone,″ said Rugova, who met Wednesday with Chris Hill, the U.S. envoy to the Balkans, and with Macedonian President Kiro Gligorov.

UNHCR has pledged $4.5 million to Macedonia to help cope with the refugee influx and has paid out about half of that, said Dennis McNamara, Balkans envoy for the U.N. refugee agency. He said the government has apparently agreed in principle to open at least one new camp.

Meanwhile, a senior NATO commander in Albania said Wednesday that Serb artillery and water shortages are spurring the relocation of about 30,000 refugees from the northern Albanian border with Kosovo.

``In the open, tents don’t offer much protection from shrapnel. The last thing I want is the Serbs lobbing a few rounds into this place,″ said British Lieut. Gen. John Reith in Kukes.

International aid agencies and NATO are hoping to relocate the refugees to safer, better camps in central and southern Albania. About 300 refugees left a Kukes camp Wednesday, the second day of the organized relocation. About 200 were moved Monday to the U.S.-built Camp Hope.

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