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Tuesday, April 6, 1999 Published at 15:16 GMT 16:16 UK

World: Europe

Refugee airlift takes off

Refugees are fearing a permanent split from their families

Click here for a map of the refugee bottleneck on Kosovo-Macedonian border

The operation to airlift Kosovo-Albanian refugees to temporary shelter outside the region has begun in earnest.

Kosovo: Special Report

More than 1,000 exhausted refugees - many wearing mud-covered shoes and carrying very few belongings - left the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia on Monday for Turkey and Norway.

But many of the refugees bused to the airport said they did not want to go and feared being permanently split from their families.

The BBC's Paul Wood: "Nobody seems to have consulted the refugees"
A BBC Correspondent in Macedonia, Paul Wood, says many had not been told where they were going.

Some of them sobbed uncontrollably. One man tried to run out of the airport but police dragged him back.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR has distanced itself from the scenes in Macedonia, saying it is not party to any forced evacuation.

Paul Welsh: "For now, it seems the refugees are trapped"
The European Union Commissioner for Humanitarian Affairs, Emma Bonino, has also criticised the measure as adding forced exile to forced deportation.

As the airlifts continue, tens of thousands of refugees still trying to enter Macedonia are waiting without food and shelter to cross the border.

'Cork out of the bottle'

In the words of a senior American diplomat in Macedonia, the operation to airlift the refugees has "removed the cork out of the bottle".

[ image: Nato says it wants the refugees to eventually return to their homes]
Nato says it wants the refugees to eventually return to their homes
Refugees are leaving the country, which means the Macedonians are allowing them out of the squalid border encampments and into relief centres just built by Nato troops.

Nato has stressed that while the goal is for the refugees to return to their homes in Kosovo, the alliance wants to take pressure off neighbouring states by providing temporary homes elsewhere.

Nato accuses Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic of deliberately trying to destabilise surrounding countries with a flood of refugees. Yugoslav troops are accused of a systematic campaign of forced expulsions.

Jonathan Charles: The queue of refugee cars is said to be 20 miles long"
The Albanian Government has protested against plans to airlift Kosovo Albanians out of the region because it says such moves further Serbian aims.

"Albania doesn't want to be part of Milosevic's ethnic cleansing mechanism," Information Minister Musa Ulqini said.

Border bottlenecks

Aid workers say there are still long queues waiting to get into Macedonia and people are dying.

Tens of thousands of refugees are living sheltered by plastic and blankets in a makeshift camp at border area of Blace, where they wait to enter Macedonia.

UNHCR Spokesman Nicholas Morris: "We didn't think this would happen"
Thousands have been bused out of the camp in recent days, but their numbers swelled again after a train delivered several thousand more refugees to the border on Sunday.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says the refugees have told of a 25km queue of people waiting to get at the border-crossing of Jazince.

"What the arrivals indicate is that there may be 50,000 coming in coming days," UNHCR spokeswoman Paula Ghedini said.

Clare Short: "Dispersal isn't the issue"
UK International Development Secretary Clare Short, who visited Macedonia this week, has warned that large numbers of people could die because of delays in allowing refugees to enter the country.

"We must ensure no more obstacles are put in their way ... otherwise there will be an outbreak of disease and a real risk that large numbers will die," Ms Short said.

Albania keeps all refugees

Albania, in contrast, is keeping all the refugees that have arrived from Kosovoo refugees.

In a massive influx within the last 24 hours, about 40,000 people have crossed the Albanian border.

The UNHCR says the number of people who had fled Kosovo since 24 March, when Nato began bombing Yugoslavia, is now more than 400,000, with

  • 262,000 in Albania
  • 120,000 in Macedonia
  • 36,700 in Montenegro
  • 8,000 in Bosnia and
  • 6,000 in Turkey.

UN crisis meeting

As the crisis escalates, the United Nations is holding a meeting of 56 countries in Geneva to try to co-ordinate the relief effort.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata accused Yugoslav authorities of attempting to destroy Kosovo's collective identity by forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee.

David Willey reports on how Italy is coping with the influx of Kosovan refugees
Ms Ogata said that efforts to help the refugees should not undermine the international community's desire to get them back home.

"Solutions, for the overwhelming majority, means returning to their homes as soon as possible," she said.

Yugoslavia's UN ambassador again insisted that the exodus was caused by Nato bombing.

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