Albania + 3 more

UNHCR warns of critical refugee problem in Serbia

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By Beti Bilandzic

BELGRADE, July 20 (Reuters) - The United Nations refugee agency warned on Tuesday of a critical situation in several central Serbian towns carrying the main burden of a flood of displaced people from Kosovo.

"Their accommodation is completely unsuitable, they are put up mostly in schools without adequate plumbing or any other facilities," said Vesna Petkovic of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees' Belgrade office.

Whereas almost a million ethnic Albanians fled Kosovo into neighbouring Macedonia and Albania before NATO troops entered the province last month, the subsequent flow of Serbs and gypsies fearing ethnic Albanian revenge has been much smaller.

But it comes on top of an already heavy refugee burden from earlier ethnic conflicts and amid reluctance on the part of the West to help a country whose leader, Slobodan Milosevic, has been indicted by a U.N. tribunal for alleged war crimes in Kosovo.

"We are here to alert donors that this country already has over half a million refugees and now has new people flooding in with no adequate space to put them in," Petkovic told Reuters.

U.N. Secretary general Kofi Annan said in a recent report that Serbs left the Kosovo province initially due to fears over their security and then because of a growing number of actual incidents committed by Kosovo Albanians against Kosovo Serbs.

Gypsies accused by the ethnic Albanians of siding with the Serbs, fled with them.

Most of the displaced have found refuge in central and southern Serbia, apparently to be closer to Kosovo so as to return home as soon as the situation was stabilised.

"The most critical situation is in the towns of Kraljevo, Kragujevac and several others in the area which have accommodated the largest number of refugees," Petkovic said.

She said Serbia had around 150,000 people from Kosovo.

"Out of a total 169,824 refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) from Kosovo in Yugoslavia, some 22,000 are in Montenegro and the rest are in Serbia," she said.

The agency estimated there were 18,525 displaced people in Kraljevo, equal to almost a third of the town's population, and 13,246 in Kragujevac, around a tenth, who had arrived from Kosovo since the NATO troops entered Kosovo in June.

The Yugoslav Red Cross, which puts the number of Kosovo IDPs at about 100,000 in Serbia, said it was having problems helping them because "very little aid is coming in for them".

The head of the U.N. Mission for Kosovo, Bernard Kouchner, called on the international community last week to speed up the deployment of a promised 5,000 armed police to help ensure a safe environment for the population in the province.

Ethnic Albanians and Serbs agreed in Kosovo on Thursday on confidence-building steps at the first session of a multi ethnic Kosovo Transitional council.

Serb refugees themselves are still wary, but are hoping the time to return to their homes would come soon.

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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