WASHINGTON - NATO issued perhaps its most panicked public request yesterday, with spokesman Jamie Shea demanding: ''Will the authorities in Belgrade please tell us what has happened to the Kosovo Albanian men between the ages of 16 and 60?''
But by late afternoon, the mystery was not simply where the men had gone. It was why, after days of reports about missing Albanian men, they suddenly appeared to be streaming across the border from Kosovo.
By last night, in fact, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was reporting a sudden influx of young male Kosovars into Macedonia and Albania. Officials believe the men may either be soldiers from the Kosovo Liberation Army fleeing Serb troops, or young civilians who had been hiding in the mountains for the last week.
''We have seen, in the last 24 hours, a lot of young men coming out. This does not account for all of them,'' said Panos Moumpzis, a spokesman for the UN agency. ''But it is large groups of men.''
Reports about the whereabouts of fighting-age males had been unsettling - and dubious - since NATO airstrikes began, and the reappearance yesterday of so many of the presumed dead raised broader questions about the quality of the information NATO officials receive and distribute to the world. Despite the confusion that traditionally clouds accuracy in combat situations, several recent incidents of conflicting accounts have reminded outsiders that even NATO officials don't always know what's going on.
Earlier this week, NATO reported five ethnic Albanian leaders had been executed by Serb forces, but days later other Western sources indicated the two most prominent of the men were alive. Reports that a soccer stadium in the Kosovo capital of Pristina had been transformed into a concentration camp by Serb officials were also called into question by numerous refugees. Even the tallies of refugees has varied from agency to agency at times.
''I think any time there's a military conflict, there's always a `fog of war,''' said David Leavy, a National Security Council spokesman.
While no one is dismissing reports of scattered killings, most of the stories of missing Albanians could not be independently verified and came from villagers who described seeing their young sons separated by Serb troops.
This story ran on page A08 of the Boston Globe on 04/03/99. © Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.