Thousands of ethnic Albanians flee FYR of Macedonia, UN refugee agency says

Thousands of ethnic Albanians flee FYR of Macedonia, UN refugee agency says

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The United Nations refugee agency today urged all sides to the intensifying conflict in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to step back from the brink.

The warning from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) came as thousands of ethnic Albanians crossed the border into neighbouring Kosovo for a fourth straight day, raising the spectre of another refugee crisis in the Balkans.

"The fighting must stop now because tomorrow may already be too late," said High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers, who visited the area on Friday and Saturday. With more than 1 million people in the Balkans still displaced, "the last thing the region needs is more refugees," Mr. Lubbers said.

UNHCR workers monitoring the main Blace border crossing between the FYR of Macedonia and Kosovo said about 12,000 people - mostly women and children - had crossed the frontier since Friday. Many were exhausted after walking for hours in the scorching Balkan heat.

The refugees said they had fled the village of Aracinovo, outside of Skopje, fearing an outbreak of fighting between rebels and government forces facing each other in a tense standoff on the outskirts of Aracinovo. Those arriving at the Kosovo border were given water and food before being registered and taken on to host families.

UNHCR said more than 24,000 people have fled from the FYR of Macedonia to Kosovo since the fighting resumed in early May, after a two-month lull.

Meanwhile in Pristina, a spokesman for KFOR, the international security presence in Kosovo, said today its continuing efforts to reinforce the Kosovo/FYR of Macedonia border were already bearing fruit. Roy Brown said 16 people were detained over the weekend in four separate incidents south of Vitina, with weapons and equipment seized. Five individuals were arrested in Prizen, and KFOR was continuing to foil border crossing attempts from Albania to Kosovo on an almost daily basis, the spokesman said.