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Thousands of ethnic Albanians flee Macedonia

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Thousands of ethnic Albanians flee Macedonia

11 June 2001

GENEVA - The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees today urged all sides in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia's intensifying conflict to step back from the brink. The warning came as thousands of ethnic Albanians crossed the border into neighbouring Kosovo for a fourth straight day, raising the spectre of another refugee crisis in the Balkans.

"The fighting must stop now because tomorrow may already be too late," said High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers, who visited the area Friday and Saturday. "More than 1 million people in the Balkans remain displaced from the conflicts of the past decade. The last thing the region needs is more refugees."

UNHCR workers monitoring the main Blace border crossing between Macedonia and Kosovo say about 12,000 people - mostly women and children - have crossed the frontier since Friday. Many were exhausted after walking for hours in the scorching Balkan heat.

The refugees said they fled the village of Aracinovo, outside of Skopje. Those interviewed by UNHCR said they feared an outbreak of fighting between rebels and government forces facing each other in a tense standoff on the outskirts of Aracinovo.

Many of those arriving said they had earlier fled the town Kumanovo and sought refuge in Aracinovo, only to be displaced for the second time in just a few weeks. Those arriving at the Kosovo border were given water and food before being registered and taken on to host families. Some elderly persons and women needed medical attention, after the strenuous trek from Aracinovo to the border.

UNHCR said more than 24,000 people have fled from Macedonia to Kosovo since the fighting resumed in early May, after a two-month lull. The original outbreak of hostilities last February had driven tens of thousands of people from their homes.