BELGRADE, Dec 22, 1999 -- (Reuters) Some 25,000 ethnic Albanians scattered throughout Serbia outside Kosovo had to flee repression during the 11 weeks of NATO bombing this year, the Helsinki Human Rights Group said Tuesday.
A report by the committee's Belgrade chapter said: "The NATO intervention served as a cover for massive ethnic cleansing of Kosovo Albanians, but Albanians living elsewhere in Serbia were also exposed to harassment, and some were even expelled."
A copy of the report was obtained by AFP.
It said many fled because of "assassinations of civilians, pillaging, burning down dwellings, mosques and schools, confiscation of property, maltreatment, and restriction on freedom of movement."
The NATO air campaign began after Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic refused to withdraw security forces engaged in Kosovo against separatist ethnic Albanian forces. The population of the Serbian province is largely Albanian.
The Helsinki Committee report said the separatist conflict in Kosovo was "the logical result of long years of repression exercised by the Serb authorities against the Albanian population."
From last March 24 -- the date of the start of the bombing -- about 25,000 ethnic Albanins fled Bujanovac, Presevo and Medvedja, three areas in southern Serbia outside Kosovo, and sought refuge in the immediate vicinity of Kosovo or in the neighbouring former Yugoslav federal state of Macedonia which borders on Kosovo.
The number of Albanians in the three communities was estimated at some 100,000 before the NATO attacks. Presevo had been 85 percent Albanian.
The Committee said police and military together with Kosovo Serbs who had taken refuge in the three areas had continued maltreating the Albanian population.
Ethnic Albanians in Belgrade and Voivodina in northern Serbia had also been victims of Serb anger during the NATO air strikes. Many of them were shopkeepers whose property was sacked.
An ethnic Albanian journalist, Bahri Cani, had left Belgrade after having been seized in the middle of the city and held in detention for several days.
[URL may be different next day if article is archived]