MIAMI -- A planned airlift of Kosovo refugees to the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, now seems unlikely, a U.S. military official said Friday.
"It's quite clear there's a strong recommendation not to go with the Guantanamo option," said Lt. Col. John Snyder of the U.S. Southern Command headquarters in Miami. But engineers and other military personnel were still making arrangements to house refugees at the base, Snyder told Reuters."We're still prepared to receive them. No one has officially told us to turn it off," he said.
The United States said Tuesday it would temporarily settle up to 20,000 Kosovo refugees at its naval base at Guantanamo Bay, a barbed wire-ringed enclave in the southeast corner of communist Cuba that has been used in the past to house Haitians and Cubans trying to get to the United States.
But refugee officials, including the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, questioned the plan, saying the Kosovars would suffer in the confines and tropical conditions nearly 6,000 miles from their Balkan homeland.
"One concern was that they would be restricted, there would be little freedom of movement at a military base," UNHCR spokeswoman Dawn Calabia told Reuters.
Most refugees appeared to want to stay closer to home and with the refugee flow easing, efforts were being made to find them shelter in Europe. But other options, including Guantanamo, would be kept open as the situation was fluid, Calabia said.
In Macedonia, the U.N. refugee chief toured one of the largest of the tent camps to have sprung up in Macedonia and Albania in the past week, trying to bring order to the care of nearly a half million displaced Kosovo Albanians.
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata gently turned back an ethnic Albanian boy who ran up to her in the Brazda camp, home to 25,000 refugees, demanding to know when he could go back to Kosovo.
"I would like to go there too," Ogata told the boy. "We can go back when we could go there safely."
Getting adequate food, blankets and shelters to the refugees scattered across Albania and Macedonia is still a work in progress. NATO troops put up the first of 2,000 tents at Brazda a week ago, when Serb forces were reportedly forcing ethnic Albanians out of Kosovo.
Ogata was meeting later with the president and prime minister of Macedonia.
NATO troops are slowly turning over the basic chores of running the camps to aid agencies.
"Think of this place, conceived, planned and implemented in one week," Ogata said, as refugees emerged from their tents, and mothers cleaned and groomed their children for the day. "That takes a large military organization."
In Brussels, NATO said it would send about 8,000 troops to Albania to help with logistics, infrastructure and coordination at airports.
The main airport in Albania's capital, Tirana, has been swamped with flights bringing in tons of aid from more than 30 countries that responded with pledges to help UNHCR deal with the tide of refugees.
On Thursday, 15 humanitarian flights requested clearance to land at Tirana's airport, but only eight were allowed in, said U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard in New York. Another 14 planes were scheduled to land Friday.
"We will continue to do all we can to help the victims of this tragedy," President Clinton said Friday in Washington.
A U.S. emergency relief official requested Americans call 1-800 USAID RELIEF. "This is a human disaster and these people need our help," James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said on NBC's "Today."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.