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Update No. 98/06 on the activities of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in response to the crisis in Kosovo

30-07-1998 Operational Update No 98/06

 The past weeks have seen a serious escalation in fighting in Kosovo with a series of violent clashes taking place in the centre and south west of the province between the Yugoslav forces and the Kosovo Albanian insurgents (UCK) This has undoubtedly taken a heavy toll on the civilian population with tens of thousands forced to leave their homes, many to shelter out of fear in forests and mountains, and widespread destruction of property.  There are now well over a 100,000 people who have had to abandon their homes since the crisis began.  

 The swiftly evolving situation, the large movement of displaced people and the deteriorating security situation means the ICRC faces an extremely complex and difficult environment in which to work. Nevertheless, field teams make daily visits to provide immediate help or important follow-up work (family y contacts, continuing distributions, prison visits and representations with authorities).  

 The battle for Orahovac  

In mid-July, the town of Orahovac was the scene of one of the fiercest battles so far as both sides fought for control of the town. ICRC delegates who arrived on-the-spot on Tuesday, July 21, in the immediate aftermath of the peak of the fighting were shocked to witness the visible effects of the battle with bodies scattered along roadsides, burning buildings, and terrified civilians, mostly ethnic Albanians, trapped in their cellars. Delegates were also very much concerned by credible reports that a considerable number of Serbs had been abducted and ethnic Albanians arrested.

Around 20,000 people, mainly ethnic Albanians, had fled Orahovac and its surroundings to Malishevo, north of the town. An ICRC team first visited Malishevo on Monday, 20, July where they encountered displaced people in a state of shock and trauma. Delegates were immediately able to distribute relief goods such as wheat flour, individual food and hygiene parcels and to provide medical establishments, which were quickly running out of supplies, with basic surgical equipment with which to treat the influx of wounded people. Teams returned during the following days to Malishevo to continue to distribute essential emergency supplies.

On Wednesday, July 22, the ICRC was contacted to facilitate the release of 35 Serbs from Kosovo who had been abducted during the clashes in Orahovac. The people, mainly elderly and sick and including seven priests, were collected by the ICRC and taken to Pristina. Whilst welcoming the release, the ICRC is determined to exert the same efforts in order to have access to all Serbs abducted and to all ethnic Albanians arrested because of the hostilities in Kosovo.

On July 23 and 24, the delegates returned to Orahovac where they were able to meet with hundreds of civilians trapped in the town. The ICRC is now putting its efforts on normalising the life in the city and facilitating freedom of movement.

 Northern Albania  

As the battle for Orahovac raged, there were simultaneous clashes along the border with Albania between Yugoslav army troops and insurgents reportedly attempting to infiltrate from Albania. The clashes resulted in an influx of wounded combatants who managed to make the hazardous journey across difficult terrain to northern Albania.

Albanian Red Cr oss representatives and ICRC delegates were immediately on-hand on the border to witness the dramatic scene and were able to provide treatment and transport for the 27 seriously wounded to the hospital in Bajram Curri . .

 The present situation  

Since 25 July the Yugoslav forces opened by force main roads leading to UCK-controlled areas (Pec-Pristina, Suka Reva-Stimje). By Tuesday, 28 July, the UCK stronghold of Malishevo was taken by Yugoslav forces.

The strategy of opening main roads has resulted in reports of destruction of villages and roadside property. The attack on Malishevo prompted the exodus of tens of thousands of people, many of whom had only recently been forced to flee Orahovac. An ICRC team is presently assessing the situation of the different groups of displaced.

Meanwhile, tension remains high around places like Junik, the scene of earlier fighting and where the ICRC has made visits to assist Serb and Albanian communities with emergency help, and around other potential flashpoints.

 ICRC priorities  

The main objective of the ICRC operation in Kosovo is to try to ensure that the civilian population is spared as much as possible from the damaging psychological and physical effects of the hostilities - by helping those affected and by reminding of those involved in the hostilities of their obligations to treat persons who are not or no longer taking part in the fighting the respect they are due under the provisions of international humanitarian law.

The key focuses of the current ICRC action are:

* For the displaced , to continue to provide basic emergency relief and medical help for the increasingly large numbers of people forced to flee their homes and to re-establish family links for those who have lost contact with their relatives

* For those trapped in their homes or cut off in their villages to try to tackle both the psychological trauma and their material needs - such as provided recently to the people recently in Kijevo and Orahovac.

* For the civilian victims of violence, harassment and threats , to continue to gather relevant allegations from the affected communities by constant contact and dialogue in order to strengthen representations with the authorities where needed.

* For the wounded, sick and for pregnant women , to ensure material support to those providing medical care and to ensure continuing access to medical facilities for those who need it.

* For those who lost their lives , to ensure that their identity is established beyond doubt before their remains be given a decent burial. Ideally, families should be able to proceed to identification and burial, but where this is not possible, families must be informed of the death of a relative and the location of the grave.

* For the abducted Serbs, to gain immediate access to ease the anguish of their families who have no idea of their whereabouts, and facilitate their early release.

* For the ethnic Albanians arrested , to continue to visit them regularly.