And now, Europe's poorest country is bracing for a human flood as tens of thousands of ethnic Albanians are being herded out of Kosovo by Serbian security forces engaged in a stepped-up ethnic-cleansing campaign, international monitors said.
Yesterday, observers at the border said that more than 10,000 people crossed into Albania during the previous 24-hour period, the largest single influx of refugees into this country since the conflict in Kosovo erupted last year.
Aid agencies in Albania's northeast outpost of Kukes expect an additional 20,000 to 100,000 refugees may soon stream into the area, creating a humanitarian disaster, as Yugoslavia reacts to NATO airstrikes.
By late last night, monitors said 1,000 refugees an hour were heading into the country.
"It's getting out of control," said Andrea Angeli, a spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. "We are not even able to count these people any more. . . . It is a hell up there."
"We have to recognize that we are now on the brink of a major humanitarian disaster . . . the likes of which we have not seen in Europe since the closing days of World War II," said NATO spokesman Jamie Shea.
"It seems as if [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic is trying to create a new situation on the ground, in his view irreversible," he added.
U.N. officials estimate 500,000 ethnic Albanians -- 25 percent of Kosovo's population -- have been displaced by the yearlong Serb assault.
As NATO bombs fall, Kosovo's ethnic Albanian civilians are being rounded up and forced out of the area in a coordinated campaign, diplomats said. Serbian forces seem to be re-creating one of the horrors of the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, with this apparent policy of ethnic cleansing.
By sending ethnic Albanians to neighboring countries like Albania and Macedonia, the Serbs are attempting to widen the conflict.
"They want to ethnically cleanse Kosovo -- not to divide the country, but to have the full Kosovo just for them," said Ilaz Ramajli, who heads a local office for the largely unrecognized Republic of Kosovo.
It's difficult to provide an accurate count for the plight of civilians in Kosovo.
Albanian President Rexhip Mehdani said, "Based on the information, I can say [a] few hundred people have been killed the last few days."
Angeli said those arriving in Albania were mostly women, children and elderly men, with only a few younger men among the hordes.
He said Serbian authorities confiscated license plates and identification cards from many of those crossing the border. Those who have arrived in Albania have described Serb attacks on their towns, rounding up of civilians and expulsions.
"It's a clear sign they don't want them any more," Angeli said.
The rugged mountainous frontier between Albania and Yugoslavia has been a flash point during the Kosovo conflict. The rebel Kosovo Liberation Army set up training bases in Albania and ran weapons into Serbia's embattled province.
During last summer's fighting, 25,000 refugees fled Kosovo for Albania, straining the country's limited resources.
Serb forces have mounted two rocket attacks across the border in the last week, although no other major incursions were reported.
Though Albania has a small army of 8,000 to 10,000 soldiers, it has been able to muster aging Chinese-made tanks and more modern Italian-made armored personnel carriers at the border.
But the threat to Albania isn't military -- it's humanitarian.
The refugee exodus poses great risks for Albania, a country the size of Maryland with a population of 3.2 million. The government is trying to cope with the crushing burdens posed by the refugees, who must be housed, fed and cared for.
The government announced a convoy of 300 buses would soon begin relocating the refugees to five centers throughout the country.
But this is an unstable place recovering from the decades-long iron grip of Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha, who died in 1985.
During Hoxha's paranoid reign, Albania embarked on a campaign to build hundreds of thousands of mushroom-shaped concrete bunkers to repel invasion. They lie unused, many smashed, around the countryside.
Rising from the rubble of the Hoxha years, Albania's developing democracy remains as rocky as its mountains.
The country's economy is still recovering in the wake of the devastating collapse of pyramid schemes a few years ago, when hundreds of millions of dollars disappeared in bogus financial operations.
Yesterday, in a main square once dominated by a statue of Hoxha, 10,000 locals gathered to show their support for Kosovo's ethnic Albanians.
In front of a giant sign that paired Albanian and NATO flags with the slogan "NATO and Kosovo," speakers supported the bombing campaign against Yugoslavia.
The crowd chanted "America, America," as American flags were waved.
"Whoever tries to push Kosovars off their land deserves death," former president Sali Berisha shouted to the crowd.
Away from the rally, Mehdani, the current president, attempted to downplay the rhetoric. Still, he called for NATO to "accelerate" its intervention in Kosovo and to "find new forms of intervention on land."
"Massacres are going on," he said. "They have to stop."
Pub Date: 3/29/99