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Tuesday, March 30, 1999 Published at 17:41 GMT 18:41 UK

World: Europe

Macedonian border 'effectively closed'

Families talk of leaving with only the clothes on their backs

Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia says it is struggling to cope with the influx of Kosovo refugees, and fears are growing of attempts to close the border.

Kosovo: Special Report

The announcement was made by the Macedonian Government as thousands of Albanian refugees continued to escape Serb forces which are widely held to be carrying out summary executions, torching Albanian homes and separating men from their families.

Rob Parsons: The Macedonian authorities are in no hurry to let refugees in
BBC correspondent on the Kosovo-Macedonian border, Paul Wood, says the refugees are allowed through very slowly and hundreds, possibly thousands, of people are waiting in a queue.

[ image:  ]
Witnesses say a human column several kilometres long has formed.

Our correspondent says the international aid workers believe the Macedonian police are attempting to process people so slowly that the border is effectively closed.

Surge towards borders

More than 120,000 Kosovo Albanians have now fled Kosovo amid continuing reports of Serb forces assaulting civilians and burning houses.

Reports say another 100,000 are still surging towards the borders of Montenegro, Macedonia and Albania.

In recent days many thousands have made it to the borders.

  • Albania: Up to 100,000
  • Montenegro: 37,500
  • Macedonia: 20,500

The UN refugee agency says they are victims of an organised Serb campaign of ethnic cleansing, which it fears could ultimately lead to a quarter of the population being driven out.

Paul Stromberg, a Geneva-based spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said reports from observers on the borders spoke of widespread violence and intimidation from Serb forces.

"The picture drawn for us by refugees is very, very grim and very, very discouraging," he said.

Albania struggles to cope

The Albanian President, Rexhep Meidani, has urged the international community to help his country cope with a massive influx of refugees.

The BBC correspondent in Albania, Clarence Mitchell, said refugees continued to pour into the border town of Kukes late into the night.

[ image: Refugees are flooding into Albania]
Refugees are flooding into Albania
The town of just 18,000 inhabitants, had swelled with more than 80,000 refugees in 72 hours.

Five thousand were being sheltered in four warehouse holding areas and another 5,000 were housed in private homes.

Although the agencies were trying to move people away from the small border town, many refugees were waiting in a desperate search for lost relatives.

The BBC's Paul Wood in Skopje: Refugees are crossing mined mountain tracks
"Around 30 men have been waiting on the Albanian border for their wives and children since Thursday," a UNHCR spokesman said.

But the majority of refugees arriving in Kukes are being loaded onto buses, open top lorries, and tractors, to make the perilous journey down mountain tracks to larger Albanian towns and cities.

Exodus into Montenegro

BBC News' Paul Welsh speaks to women and children fleeing to Montenegro
In Montenegro, correspondents have described the stream of refugees as an exodus and officials there expect 40,000 more to arrive.

One truck in the hundreds of vehicles heading out of Kosovo contained the population of an entire village. They said they were loaded onto the truck at gunpoint and a hand grenade was lobbed at them as they left.

"We didn't have time to pick up clothes or food or anything. We just had the clothes on our backs," one woman said.

Aid agencies swamped

Aid agencies such as the UNHCR accept that they do not have enough people on the ground to deal with the crisis.

[ image: Refugees reach for water from aid workers]
Refugees reach for water from aid workers
Kukes, for example, has just one UNHCR representative, although six more aid workers are to join him soon.

Emma Bonino, the European Union's commissioner for humanitarian affairs, is expected to visit Albania and neighbouring Macedonia to assess the scale of the refugee crisis and how Europe should respond.

There have been pledges of emergency aid from several countries including Britian which has offered a transport plane to ferry supplies into Albania from Copenhagen as well as £10m in extra aid.

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