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Refugees Continue to Leave Kosovo Despite Withdrawal

By Carol J. Williams

If Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has begun withdrawing his forces from embattled Kosovo, the masked, dagger-wielding thugs who drove 14-year-old Fitore Lika and throngs of other ethnic Albanians out of the province Monday hadn’t gotten the word.

“They told us to go or we would all be massacred,” said Lika, weeping as she trudged across the Kosovo border in a torrential downpour. “They came in the morning with masks and long knives and told us to run to NATO if we wanted to be saved.”

After a weekend when Milosevic’s army troops, police and paramilitary gunmen stepped up their campaign of terror and expulsion, officials of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva noted the exodus had now sent about half of Kosovo’s 1.8 million ethnic Albanians fleeing past the province’s borders.

Kukes, the nearest town in this rugged and remote corner of northern Albania, has swollen to five times its 28,000 prewar population. More than one-third of the 400,000 refugees who have flooded through here have hunkered down in miserable tents and plastic-shrouded truck beds to wait out what they hope will be a short-lived war.

“This town has seen the largest movement of people through a single place since World War II, if not before that,” said UNHCR spokesman Ray Wilkinson, reiterating the refugee agency’s fears that the inundation provides fresh victims for the already bandit-ridden northern regions of Albania.

In Belgrade, the Yugoslav army announced it was withdrawing part of its forces from Kosovo, a southern province of Yugoslavia, because it had completed its rout of ethnic Albanian rebels of the Kosovo Liberation Army. NATO and Western leaders said the announcement was far short of their demand for a full and verifiable pullout.

The withdrawal order was said to be in effect from 10 p.m. Sunday, but refugees consistently reported being rousted from their most recent place of hiding hours later.

Most of the ethnic Albanian Kosovars in the latest procession of sorrow that arrived here in sporadic, tear-stained clutches of several hundred were among the hundreds of thousands who had been forced from their homes by threats and gunfire but were unable to escape Kosovo.

Stripped of money, documents and dignity weeks ago and left to wander, the hungry, desperate stragglers have again begun crossing out of Kosovo in droves.

“We’ve been walking for three weeks and only with the help of God are we still alive,” Nuradin Gashi, exhausted and sobbing, proclaimed as he was met by aid workers at this border post with his pregnant wife, infant son and ailing mother-in-law. They had fled their home in Skenderaj under a hail of Serb gunfire.

“The police have been playing with us, pushing us first here and then there, threatening to kill us if we didn’t leave and then blocking our way,” said the 22-year-old refugee, who could be taken for twice his age.

Gashi said refugees had been repeatedly flushed out of their homes by Serb forces after the bombing started. They would filter back into homes that had not been destroyed, only to be sent fleeing into the woods and hills again by the Serbs.