Saturday April 15 2:37 PM ET
By ALISON MUTLER, Associated Press Writer
PRISTINA, Yugoslavia (AP) - Kosovo's leaders joined hundreds of people in a trash pickup Saturday that highlighted growing health concerns about the province's burgeoning rat population.
No one is really quite sure how many rats have invaded the city, but rodents have become more visible in recent weeks, crawling along major streets and foraging through piles of refuse.
Bernard Kouchner, the United Nations' top administrator in Kosovo, warned that the problem would only get worse if people do not start disposing of trash properly. Rats feeding off the rotting waste strewn around the provincial capital, Pristina, have become a threat to the population's health.
``It is not the plague yet,'' Kouchner said. ``But there is a growing rat population. I can't tell you how many there are.''
The garbage in the capital and the countryside has been accumulating in the 10 months since NATO took control of the province after a war aimed at stopping Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's repression of ethnic Albanian militants. U.N. authorities recognize the problem, but say they lack the money needed to clear the garbage away.
Now that the weather is getting warmer here, health officials say they are starting to see the impact of the trash - and the rats - on Kosovo's people.
At Pristina's hospital, doctors say they see 10 people a day who have gotten sick from diseases transmitted from the rats and rodent droppings.
``Before, we didn't have this problem,'' said Dr. Nadire Maqedonci at the hospital's infectious disease department. ``Now all the doctors are discussing this.''
The wards are full of cases related to the rodents. One victim, a 33-year-old woman who had given birth four days ago, was receiving treatment for an infection.
``I have many rats in my house, but only recently,'' said Elezaj Xherahire, who had been separated from her newborn because her disease is infectious.
Saturday's NATO-led cleanup was billed as a way to educate people to be more careful about how they get rid of their waste. People in Kosovo tend to simply throw trash in the street, in empty lots, in rivers - anywhere there is an untended empty space.
``We just want to set an example,'' said Gen. Klaus Reinhardt, the German commander of the NATO troops in Kosovo.
Reinhardt led a contingent of peacekeepers in combing across grassland at Pristina's university, picking up cigarette butts, orange peels, broken glass and plastic spoons.
Students also joined the effort.
``New York has rubbish too, but not like Pristina,'' said Gent Uka, 14, who lived in New York for a short time while living as a refugee from Milosevic's forces. ``We want our city to be clean.''