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Monday, July 5, 1999 Published at 18:05 GMT 19:05 UK

World: Europe

Kosovo gypsies under threat

A gypsy woman in southern Kosovo weeps as her home burns

By John McIntyre in Kosovo Polje

Here in Kosovo Polje, there's a terrible sense of deja vu.

Kosovo: Special Report
The school-yard has become a sanctuary, crammed full of people who say they've been driven from their homes in fear of their lives.

Every nook and cranny of the school's dank and dark cellars has been taken by families trying to make do in ever-worsening conditions.

People could be forgiven for thinking they'd seen the last of these overcrowded and pitiful refugee camps.

John Macintyre: A new tragedy unfolding in Kosovo
But this is a new and equally tragic crisis unfolding right here in the middle of Kosovo. These are not Albanians, they are not Serbs - these are gypsies.

Their problems are getting bigger by the day.

[ image: Sadako Ogata: Trying to reassure the gypsies]
Sadako Ogata: Trying to reassure the gypsies
Gypsies are accused by Albanians of collaborating in Serb brutalities, which is why they've also become victims of revenge attacks.

And the truth is, some probably did.

"The Albanians beat me to the ground," one 67-year-old woman told me. "Then they burned my home."

She is now one of 5,000 gypsies here too frightened to leave.

[ image: A wary minority: Kosovo's gypsies]
A wary minority: Kosovo's gypsies
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata - currently in Kosovo - has tried to give confidence to the province's minorities.

"We're trying to give them an assurance of security," she said.

The UNHCR would help gypsies and Serbs, Mrs Ogata said, whether they stayed or fled their homes.

She insisted on the gypsies' right to return to their homes "when things eventually calm down".

K-For deployment 'too slow'

The British aid agency Oxfam, which is providing essential humanitarian help, blames the crisis on the slowness of the Kosovo peacekeeping force, K-For, in getting troop numbers up to strength.

"We can't have a tank on every street and a soldier in every doorway," says Oxfam's Ian Bray, "but at least if we have twice the amount of troops here, we will be able to keep some sort of lid on this."

K-For says it is doing all it can to reach its target of 55,000 troops.

Meanwhile, Oxfam is concerned about a health epidemic at the camp, where there simply isn't the space to cope with any more demand.

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