UN body to step up aid to refugees in YU

BELGRADE, Feb 4, 2000 -- (Reuters) The United Nations announced plans on Thursday to increase aid to refugees in Yugoslavia while cutting back assistance in Kosovo.

A spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said this year's budget pencilled in $71 million for operations in Yugoslavia, which has more refugees than any other European country after a decade of Balkan wars.

This compares with $65 million last year and $40 million in 1998. "We have a very big budget this year," Maki Shinohara told a news conference.

Last year alone, more than 200,000 Serbs and other non-Albanians fled to other parts of Yugoslavia from the southern province of Kosovo, swelling a refugee population of roughly half a million from earlier conflicts.

The planned figure did not include operations in Kosovo, now under de facto international rule after NATO's March-to-June bombing campaign forced Yugoslav forces to withdraw.

Shinohara said the agency would sharply reduce its relief activities in the province, where other agencies were better suited to deal with longer term reconstruction.

Funds still sought

The 2000 budget had been approved internally but funds still had to be collected from donors, she said, adding:

"Hopefully we will be able to convince the donor governments that given the increase in the displaced population and given the situation of this country, economic or otherwise, the humanitarian needs are very much at large here in Yugoslavia."

Shinohara said Wednesday's rocket attack on a UNHCR bus carrying Serbs in Kosovo, which killed two elderly people and injured three others was extremely discouraging for refugees.

"It proves yet again that the return to Kosovo for many of the displaced people is not possible at this time," she said.

Also discouraging were reports that up to 1,000 mostly Moslems had left Kosovo for the town of Novi Pazar. Shinohara suggested the exodus may be linked to an attack in January in which a family of four Moslems in Kosovo were gunned down.

On a more optimistic note, Shinohara said the number of refugees returning to Croatia and Bosnia may increase this year amid better government cooperation. Only about 45,000 people have so far gone back from Yugoslavia, but "hopefully we could give you better news by the end of this year," she said.

Western officials have expressed hope that the fall from power of the nationalist Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) would make it easier for Serbs to return to their homes in Croatia.