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Sunday, March 28, 1999 Published at 16:20 GMT 17:20 UK

World: Europe

Serb 'scorched earth' offensive

Most of the refugees are women and children

  • For live coverage on the crisis from BBC News 24 click here

More than 500,000 Kosovo Albanians have been driven from their homes because of a scorched earth policy adopted by the Serb military, according to Nato.

Kosovo: Special Report
That is more than 25% of the entire population of Kosovo, said Nato spokesman Jamie Shea, adding that the number was "increasing at a rapid pace."

In the last few days alone, Mr Shea said, 50,000 Kosovo Albanians have been forced to flee their homes, many heading to neighbouring Albania and Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Nato spokesman Jamie Shea: "What has happened to the men aged 16-60?"
The Albanian Government has said it expects about 50,000 refugees to cross the border and told Nato on Sunday that it has accepted between 8,000 and 10,000 refugees in a few hours.

Mr Shea said the situation is "on the brink of a major humanitarian disaster, the likes of which has not been seen in Europe since the closing stages of World War II."

Paul Wood reports: " A campaign of genocide"
Villages are being "systematically emptied, looted and destroyed", Air Commodore David Wilby said. He mentioned reports of men being separated from their families and of summary executions.

He accused President Milosevic of adopting a scorched earth policy with villages burned and ethnic Albanian men taken away to unknown destinations by security forces and paramilitary groups.

'Ethnic cleansing'

The refugees arriving in Albania and Macedonia are reported to be mostly women and children.

[ image: Terrified refugees speak of Serb atrocities]
Terrified refugees speak of Serb atrocities
"What has happened to the men aged 16-60? That is a big question which has to be clarified," Mr Shea said.

"It seems that Milosevic is trying to create a new situation on the ground, in his view irreversible, and at the same time ... trying to destabilise the entire area."

He said there were reports of ethnic cleansing in a number of areas, with Yugoslav forces apparently trying to "empty" parts of the north and also near the southern border with Macedonia.

Nato says the Kosovo Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova is now in hiding and his house has been burned.

Journalists are unable to substantiate the reports of the Serb attacks or refugee numbers as access to Kosovo is now banned.

Consistent stories

[ image: A refugee tragedy unfolding]
A refugee tragedy unfolding
BBC Correspondent in Macedonian capital Skopje, Clarence Mitchell, says the refugees flooding across the Macedonian border are consistent in their stories of atrocities.

They speak of whole families being shot, but say men of fighting age are particular targets.

The majority of the refugees, usually with no money and very few belongings, have walked to the border.

The BBC's Clarence Mitchell in Macedonia: Refugees are consistent in their stories of atrocities
A number of Macedonian taxi drivers went to Kosovo on Saturday to offer the refugees free lifts to Skopje.

Our correspondent says the refugees are allowed to cross the border to Macedonia very swiftly.

Italy prepares for 'massive influx'

About 80 refugees from Kosovo, mainly women and children, were picked up by Italian police along the beaches of southern Italy on Saturday night.

The BBC's David Willey in Rome reports on a small group of refugees reaching Italy
They were among 150 people, including many Kurds, who were transported across the Adriatic by Albanian people smugglers.

BBC Rome Correspondent David Willey says the Italian authorities are preparing for a massive influx of refugees from Albania.

Interior Minister Rosa Russo Jervolino said that humanitarian organisations had asked Italy to make available military transport vessels.

But, for the moment, Italian aid to the refugees is being channelled to Albania and Macedonia.

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