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UNHCR: Ethnic separation in FYROM deeply disturbing

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UNHCR: Ethnic separation in FYROM deeply disturbing

24 July 2001

GENEVA - UNHCR is deeply disturbed by reports that Macedonian Slavs are fleeing ethnic Albanian areas of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, a development that recalls some of the darkest days of the past decade in the Balkans.

Eric Morris, UNHCR's special envoy for the region, said the refugee agency has been concerned about the possible separation of ethnic populations in FYROM since the beginning of the conflict earlier this year.

"Our fear has been that one ethnic community would go in one direction, toward the state security forces, and the other community would go the other direction, in search of security on the other side," said Morris, who has recently visited several villages in the affected areas of northern FYROM. "This is now happening in some places. It was not my feeling that 'ethnic cleansing' was the intent of the conflict, but if there's going to be a separation of the population, the consequences could be the same. It can spiral out of control. And if a community believes it was forcibly expelled, enormous barriers will be created for any eventual return."

Morris, who was at UNHCR's Geneva headquarters on Tuesday, said he was particularly disturbed by the recent departure of Macedonian Slavs from the towns of Aracinovo, north-east of Skopje, and from Lesok, north of Tetovo. He recently visited both towns.

"This concerns us greatly because the more displacement there is, the more difficult it will be to coexist in the future," he said. "We strongly urge both sides to avoid any purposeful displacement of populations - something we have seen all too often over the years in the Balkans. People should be allowed to stay in their villages and their homes. Any military activity that results in displacement will make the prospects for return that much more difficult."

Earlier Tuesday, a UNHCR spokesman in Geneva said the refugee agency was "deeply concerned" at the latest cease-fire violations and urged all parties to avoid further confrontation that has already displaced tens of thousands of people. There are more than 60,000 refugees from FYROM now in neighbouring Kosovo, as well as up to 30,000 people internally displaced within FYROM.

Morris said UNHCR is discussing possible confidence-building measures with the International Committee of the Red Cross and others to try to lay the groundwork for returns to affected villages as soon as the situation allows.