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UNHCR's Ogata says civilians in Kosovo must be protected, urges open borders

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UNHCR's Ogata says civilians in Kosovo must be protected, urges open borders

25 March 1999

The United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) today expressed grave concern about the plight of civilians in Serbia's Kosovo province, three days after most international observers and aid workers left the area.

"With only a handful of independent observers left on the ground, we are extremely worried about the plight of Kosovo's civilian population which has already been through a terrible ordeal", said High Commissioner Sadako Ogata.

Ogata demanded that all sides in the Kosovo conflict refrain from attacking civilians and warned that those guilty of atrocities will be held accountable by the international community. "Reduced international presence in Kosovo does not mean impunity", she said.

UNHCR and other UN agencies as well as most international aid organizations withdrew from Kosovo last Tuesday after the UN in New York ordered the complete evacuation of UN staff.

Ogata said the decision to leave Kosovo was a tormenting one and UNHCR will go back to the province as soon as the security situation improves.

She also urged Kosovo's neighbours to keep their borders open to those wishing to flee the troubled province. "I am asking all governments in the region and elsewhere in Europe to maintain their policy of open doors," she said.

UNHCR estimates that more than 450,000 people have been displaced since the fighting erupted in Kosovo more than one year ago. 260,000 of them remain displaced within Kosovo's borders.