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UNHCR warns of further population displacement in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia

Specials, 15 November 2001

SKOPJE The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees today warned of further population displacement in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, unless significant progress was urgently made in implementing the 13 August peace agreement.

"Macedonia is heading dangerously close to a turning point. There must be no further delays in the political peace process, particularly on the amnesty issue, if the country was to avert further displacement of its people," UN's High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, said in New York.

Lubbers, during his visit to the UN Headquarters in New York to discuss mainly the issues of Afghanistan, expressed grave concern over the burst of violence over the weekend near Tetovo, which prompted hundreds of villagers to leave their homes. The delayed parliamentary session to vote on the final legislative package was re-open today.

"UNHCR has been working for months assisting the returnees and villagers in conflict-affected areas, to help build confidence between communities. NATO's Task Force Fox and the European monitors are also doing an outstanding job in calming down the villagers in tense situations," Lubbers said.

"But it is high-time for the government to make a significant progress before people finally lose hope and extremists on both sides take up arms again, undermining all the peace efforts achieved so far."

Tension rose over the weekend in northern Macedonia when the government forces and the former ethnic Albanian rebels clashed in the village of Trebos, near Tetovo, leaving three policemen dead and 7 Albanians arrested. Many shops and schools remained closed in Tetovo. Fearing further violence, about 1,000 villagers reportedly fled the village of Ljuboten, north of Skopje, where intense security operation took place just before the August peace agreement.

The situation remains tense around the village of Semsovo in the Tetovo region, with the state forces stationed in nearby villages. Most of the women and children have left the village afraid of the sporadic shootings, which have stopped only on Wednesday, when the European monitors' set up an overnight presence in the village.

In a bid to build confidence between communities, UNHCR continues to assist returnees and villages affected in the six-month conflict. So far, UNHCR has visited 85 of the 102 villages in former conflict areas and the agency is looking for ways to send aid to families who have returned to other villages that are currently inaccessible due to security.

UNHCR has begun daily delivery of 20 truckloads of shelter repair kits to families whose homes had been damaged a total of 1,600 repair kits will be delivered by mid-December. More than 7,000 humanitarian aid packages have been delivered to benefit over 30,000 returnees and 17 quick impact projects designed to repair schools and community buildings are underway. Up to 26,000 cubic-metres of firewood is also being delivered to schools, clinics and vulnerable families.

To facilitate freedom of movement, UNHCR has added three new buslines this week to the six currently operating in Skopje and Kumanovo areas. Evening buses for students run between Skopje and Radusa, as well as between Kumanovo and Lojane. Another new busline links the village of Grusino, near Kumanovo, and Skopje. UNHCR will operate these buslines until commercial buses can resume normally.

"UNHCR will continue to help stabilize Macedonia, assisting the displaced population and returnees of all communities," UNHCR's Head of operations in FYROM, Amin Awad, said.

"But humanitarian aid alone cannot sustain peace. I sincerely hope the parliament will finally pass the peace package and send a positive signal to the people," Awad said.

UNHCR considers an effective amnesty is key in normalizing further the situation in Macedonia. The agency says amnesty should not only apply to the former Albanian rebels, but also to draft-evaders and deserters of all communities, who had refused to take up arms during the six-month internal conflict.

The conflict in Macedonia displaced more than 100,000 refugees and up to 70,000 internally displaced at its height. Over 62,000 refugees have now returned from Kosovo and an estimated 20,000 internally displaced people have returned to their homes. Some 16,000 refugees remain in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, mainly in Kosovo.

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