BELGRADE, Nov 17, 1999 -- (Reuters) Five months after the Kosovo conflict ended, there up to 240,000 displaced people from Kosovo in Yugoslavia with "slim chances" of returning home before the winter is out, the U.N. refugee agency said on Tuesday.
In addition, some 500,000 refugees from earlier conflicts in Bosnia and Croatia are still living in Yugoslavia, according to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates.
"The...preliminary figure of displaced people from Kosovo in Serbia and Montenegro is now close to 240,000," Maki Shinohara told a news conference.
"Out of this number some 10,000 are housed in collective centers and the rest either in host families or in private accommodation," she said.
Serbs and other minority groups in Kosovo began fleeing when NATO-led peacekeeping troops replaced Serb security forces there in June after 11 weeks of NATO bombing.
They feared revenge attacks by ethnic Albanians who were driven out en masse and their homes burned before and during the air strikes.
UNHCR worried about accommodation
Shinohara said the UNHCR was alarmed that many of the Kosovo displaced in Serbia and Montenegro were coming to their offices requesting accommodation which meant they could no longer stay with host families or afford to stay privately.
To help out, the UNHCR this week launched a program to give cash grants for vulnerable people who are privately housed.
The program is expected to cover up to 50,000 people with special medical needs, the elderly and single parent families who will each receive a cash grant of 2,000 Yugoslav dinars, Sinohara said. The sum is worth $176 at the official exchange rate and $63 at the more widely used unofficial rate.
The UNHCR is also urgently trying to find more collective centers, although Shinohara said housing many people together was not ideal.
A winter assistance program to distribute coal and heating oil for some 50,000 people displaced from Kosovo and the other Balkan wars was well under way.
Too dangerous for Serbs to go home
Shinohara said the UNHCR believed the best solution for the Kosovo displaced people was to go back but the situation for the non-Albanian population inside Kosovo was "very difficult."
Many of their homes had been burned in revenge and attacks against those remaining in Kosovo continued.
"During this situation we cannot force people to go back or assist them to go back into areas where their lives may be endangered," she said.
The International Committee of the Red Cross is handing out winter jackets, sweaters and pairs of boots to 240,000 Kosovo displaced, 60 percent of them children, Gordana Milenkovic of the ICRC told Reuters. It will also distribute 10,000 stoves.
The UNHCR said it had begun re-registering the displaced in Montenegro and would start in Serbia shortly.
An exact figure was needed to seek extra donations and contributions from donor governments, Shinohara said.
She said governments had been very responsive to the Kosovo non-Albanian displaced but that there were some problems with donations for refugees from Croatia and Bosnia.
"We are competing with other emerging problems such as Indonesia and Chechnya, so it is a difficult situation."
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