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UNHCR Expresses Concern about Macedonia - 2001-10-06

The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) says the failure of the Macedonian government to comply with terms of a peace agreement will discourage refugees and internally displaced people from returning to their homes. The UNHCR fears it might even prompt another wave of refugees.

The UN refugee agency says it is premature to send security forces back to conflict-affected villages. It is urging the Macedonian government to take a step-by-step approach in its plan for sending police into northern areas dominated by ethnic Albanians. The UNHCR says it is concerned that a hasty return to these villages will send more people fleeing. It says it has had to cancel plans to send mobile teams into the villages because of the rising tensions.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers says he deplores the Macedonian government's apparent backtracking on its peace commitments. "It is very tragic what is going on now," he said. "I was only last week in Skopje. It was nice, bright weather. Everybody thought it was done, and we were active there and active to bring people back, especially of Macedonian origin, into the villages, mixed population, and I made a plea for the mixed police."

Mr. Lubbers says an essential element in building confidence between the Macedoniand and ethnic Albanians is to create a mixed police force in so-called sensitive areas.

Under the peace plan, ethnic-Albanian guerrillas handed over nearly 4,000 weapons to NATO. In return, they were promised an amnesty and constitutional reforms giving ethnic Albanians greater rights. The Macedonian-dominated parliament has not yet approved these provisions.

Mr. Lubbers says the Macedonian president had assured him that the law granting amnesty to the ethnic Albanian guerrillas would be passed. In light of this, he says, he is surprised to see that the parliament is blocking this bill. "It would be very stupid when this is not going to happen because, really, the people that I met there ... one week ago were very relieved that finally - and I was there a number of months earlier when you could hear fighting in the mountains - it was over now," he said. "The people are so glad that it was finally peaceful, that we could work for returnees, and so on. And now, a bunch of stupid politicians is blocking this."

More than 56,000 refugees have returned to Macedonia since July, but another 26,000 remain in Kosovo. An estimated 41,000 people are still displaced within the country.

The UNHCR says it plans to begin reconstructing houses in war-affected villages as an inducement to get people to return to the homes they fled during the fighting.