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Tuesday, May 18, 1999 Published at 15:19 GMT 16:19 UK


Blair's pledge to refugees

Mr Blair receives flowers from a refugee girl at Elbasan

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair is assuring ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo that the Nato campaign to return them to their homes will be successful.

Kosovo: Special Report
Speaking at a refugee camp in Albania, he said his message was simple: those who had been forced out of Kosovo must be allowed to return, to live in peace and security.

He was greeted with chants of "Nato, Nato" and outstretched hands as he walked through the refugee camp at Elbasan.

He also met some of the western troops in Albania. He told them that Nato's Kosovo mission would not be easy but its commitment was unshakable.

During his visit he heard hearing harrowing accounts from Kosovo refugees at a camp in Albania.

[ image: Crowds gave Mr Blair a warm reception]
Crowds gave Mr Blair a warm reception
He flew to Elbasan following a trip to the headquaterters of the multi-national AFOR force at Plepa.

There he addressed about 100 soldiers of various nationalities and reassured them of his "unshakeable commitment to see this through".

"It cannot be right to have racial genocide and ethnic cleansing being carried out in a part of Europe and for us to stand aside and do nothing," he said.

And Mr Blair went on to hear evidence of such "ethnic cleansing" from some of the 430,000 Kosovo Albanians who have fled to neighbouring Albania from the war-torn region.

George Eykyn: "Blair wanted to be seen concentrating on the victims of the war"
He made his way through cheering crowds and into a tent where he met 72-year-old Miftar Mazrekha.

He told Mr Blair how he was robbed, forced to strip naked in front of his village by armed Serbs who kicked him and hit him with a rifle butt.

"They hit me again in the ribs," he said through an interpeter, "and they asked me for [German] marks and I told them I didn't have many because I was a pensioner and I gave them all the 200 marks I had and they told me it wasn't enough."

Earlier, he said, the Serbs had rounded up all the young men. By nightfall, his wife Shyret said, they went in search of "all the beautiful girls".

Promise of safe return

It was the most vivid account yet of "ethnic cleansing" that Mr Blair had heard at first hand.

[ image: Greeted on arrival  by Albania's PM Pandeli Majko]
Greeted on arrival by Albania's PM Pandeli Majko
He went on to address another crowd of refugees telling them that Nato would carry on with its bombing campaign.

"Our promise to you, to all of you, is that you should return in peace to the land that is yours" he said.

Brits in Balkans
The prime minister then flew off to the Albanian capital Tirana to meet his counterpart Pandeli Majko.

Nicholas Witchell reports: "The conflict has become increasingly personal for Tony Blair"
He is expected to promise and extra £5m for Albania's floundering economy and a £1m aid package to build a new camp for 5,000 refugees.

But Mr Blair's visit coincides with criticism of the humanitarian operation by one of the biggest aid organisations. Oxfam says the efforts are lacking co-ordination.

Strikes intensify

Overnight, Nato jets attacked an industrial zone, a key Yugoslav highway, a military airport and Kosovo targets after further accounts of ethnic Albanians being used as human shields.

Serbian media reported Nato attacks against the Batajnica military airport, north-west of Belgrade, a settlement near Leskovac, central Serbia; a bridge in Vladicin Han and a factory in Vranje to the south.

Strikes were also reported in Nis, the third-largest Yugoslav city, and an industrial zone which has frequently been targeted during the campaign.

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