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Kosovar Refugees Welcomed in Israel

April 12, 1999 GMT

BEN-GURION AIRPORT, Israel (AP) _ More than 100 Kosovar refugees arrived Monday in Israel to a festive greeting tinged by the solemnity of preparations for Holocaust Remembrance Day.

``You are arriving on a special day for the Jews of Israel,″ said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, greeting the 114 refugees _ 17 families _ on the tarmac. ``As Jews we have a special sensitivity for the suffering of others. We feel a responsibility to help.″

Most of the refugees arrived from Macedonia, where the Israeli army is running a field hospital for ethnic Albanian refugees forced out of Kosovo province by Serb military action. The forced evacuation has intensified since NATO began air strikes against Yugoslavia began in late March.

The refugees stepped off the plane wearing Jewish Agency T-shirts. The children waved Israeli flags.

The refugees will be housed at a nature society field school on the Israeli coast _ close to an Arab village that has a mosque where the refugees, most of whom are Muslims, can pray.

``We are happy to be here and we feel safe coming here,″ said Valon Kuqi, 17, who is from Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. He arrived with his parents and two sisters.

``They came to our building and ordered us out of our house,″ he said of Serbian police. ``They threatened to kill us if we could not give them anything of value.″ His father handed over his wedding ring and his wife’s earrings, Valon said.

Kreshnik Bajrkeari, a 23-year-old dental student from Pristina, said they intend to return home as soon as possible.

``But we don’t know what we’ll find when we go back,″ he said. ``I cannot imagine living with Serbians.″

Netanyahu said the refugees would be welcome to stay in Israel if they chose to do so. Thirty Bosnian Muslims who sought refuge here in 1993 have remained.

During his greeting, he singled out Llamia Jaka, the daughter of Dervish and Servet Kurkut, a Kosovar couple that hid Jews during the Holocaust.

``Today we are closing a circle, by granting shelter to the daughter of those who saved Jews,″ he said. Ms. Jaka and her husband were among the refugees; her two children were on their way from Budapest.

During Holocaust Remembrance Day, which began at sundown Monday, Israelis commemorate the murder of six million Jews during the 1939-45 German occupation of Europe.

For 24 hours, restaurants and places of entertainment shut down and television and radio broadcasts are dedicated to Holocaust programming.