Kosovo update

Macedonian officials leave hundreds of Kosovo Albanian refugees stranded.

Published March 31, 1999 7:19PM (EST)

SKOPJE, Macedonia -- Macedonian officials turned around a train of Kosovo Albanian refugees fleeing Serbian forces at the Macedonian border town of Volkov Tuesday. According to witnesses, Macedonian officials allowed the four-car train, which had originated in the Pristina, Kosovo, suburb of Kosovo Polje, to enter Macedonian territory, where it was stopped and surrounded by Macedonian army forces. The troops forced the train to turn around and go back into Kosovo. Witnesses said the passengers were confused and exhausted. It is not known what happened to them upon their return to Kosovo.

An American aid official said Macedonian border guards also detained hundreds of fleeing ethnic Albanians -- mostly women and children -- for more than 28 hours Tuesday at Blaca, the main border crossing between Kosovo and Macedonia. Aid agencies tried to negotiate with the officials to allow a heavily pregnant woman to get through more quickly, but they were still negotiating her safe passage 20 minutes later with no success. The American aid official called the detention "outrageous."

Human rights groups and fleeing refugees say in recent days Serbian forces have gone door-to-door in several Kosovo cities, including Pec, Prizren and certain neighborhoods in Pristina, telling Albanians they have two hours to flee or they will be killed. Refugees say hundreds of people have been killed, and others, especially young men of fighting age and young women, have not been allowed to leave. Ethnic Albanians are also not being allowed by Serbian authorities to shop in the few remaining state stores selling bread and other food. Almost all private shops in Pristina are reported burned and looted.

International aid agencies say Serbian forces have forced 100,000 Kosovo Albanians to flee in the past 72 hours. Currently 20,000 Kosovo Albanian refugees are in Macedonia, 40,000 in Albania and 20,000 in Montenegro. Increasingly, refugees are heading beyond the immediate borders of Kosovo, to Turkey and beyond.

An Albanian-language television station in Macedonia showed hours of raw footage Tuesday night of hundreds of Kosovo Albanians, most on foot, some on horseback, climbing over a mountain in the rain to safety in Macedonia. Some were weeping but others looked simply blank and exhausted.

While Macedonia has not officially closed its border to the Kosovo Albanian refugees, the Macedonian government is concerned that allowing so many ethnic Albanians into their country will destabilize the country's fragile ethnic balance. Macedonia, with a population of 2 million people, has a large ethnic Albanian minority of its own -- about a quarter to a third of its population. Macedonia's Albanians have been pressing the government for more rights -- including the right to have recognition of their Albanian-language pedagogical university in the northwestern Macedonian town of Tetovo.

By Laura Rozen

Laura Rozen writes about U.S. foreign policy and the Balkans crisis for Salon News.

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