Another 1,500 refugees for UK

War in the Balkans: Exodus
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The Independent Online
THE HOME Secretary Jack Straw announced yesterday that another 1,500 refugees from Kosovo will arrive in Britain over the next 10 days. The first of eight flights into Manchester airport was due to arrive last night, adding to the 1,000 refugees who have already reached the country in the past two weeks.

Groups of evacuees have been settled wherever appropriate accommodation could be found in Greater Manchester, Leeds, Leicester, Derbyshire and Glasgow but the Home Office's strategy will be to house the latest refugees in a geographical cluster in the north-west of England.

Mr Straw predicted that the refugees would be "received with the traditional hospitality for which the area is renowned". He said: "Britain is fulfilling its pledge to play a full part in accepting vulnerable people from the appalling conditions they are facing in the camps in Macedonia."

As Kosovar children began their first lessons at schools in Derbyshire and Glasgow yesterday, local authorities across Britain were preparing for the reception of up to 20,000 refugees in the coming months.

Meanwhile in Kukes, near Albania's border with Kosovo, the work of Task Force Romeo, the humanitarian arm of Nato's mission in Albania, was having less success persuading 120,000 Kosovar refugees that they should move again - this time south, away from the border.

Task Force Romeo (as in "R" for "refugee") consists of 1,300 troops, 30 of them based in a command centre in Kukes, whose job is to assist the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other agencies, primarily by transporting refugees and protecting the roads on which they may travel.

Some 40,000 people are living in tented camps dotted around the dusty border town, within Yugoslav artillery range, with at least 70,000 more staying in private homes.

The aid agencies say the refugees must move south, partly for reasons of security, and partly because Kukes (normal population 20,000) simply cannot sustain so many residents. "We can be shelled today - that's a fact," said Lt-Col Jean-Pierre Goutsmit, of Task Force Romeo. "But even in the long term, 100,000 people living in these conditions is not good."

However, few of the refugeesare convinced by these arguments and UNHCR is managing to move only 2,000 or so out each day. Task Force Romeo is to assist in the operation.

But the unexpected and unannounced arrival of the force has prompted much speculation about its aims - one senior aid official described Romeo as "a humanitarian Trojan horse", suggesting that Nato's aim was to move refugees out of Kukes in order to expand military operations against Yugoslavia.

The United Arab Emirates' contingent, which operates a refugee camp in Kukes, has built a dirt air strip capable of taking C-130 transport planes - the Romeo camp overlooks the strip. But the airport is certainly not large enough to sustain any kind of invasion force.

Stephen Green, head of the UN World Food Programme mission in Kukes, is one of those concerned by the deteriorating situation for refugees. "There are several scenarios that would make this a very unsafe place for refugees to be," he said. "One could be shelling, one could be an exchange of fire between Nato and the Serbs on the other side, one could be the staging of certain weapons systems here that could precipitate a response from the Serbs."

Other aid officials with military backgrounds dismiss such talk, noting the relaxed attitude of Romeo troops - and Col Goutsmit denies he has any warring intentions - and the difficulties of operating in Albania's mountainous terrain. But, many complain, the aid community does not really know what Nato is doing, since co-ordination has been minimal.

The UNHCR office in Kukes knew nothing about Task Force Romeo. "They seemingly had a refugee plan which we'd never heard of," said one UN official.

Several critics have muttered darkly about Nato and its various governments making media hay out of the refugee crisis by "doing something" without consulting the UN about what is most needed. Ray Wilkinson, the spokesman for UNHCR, will say only that: "We are discussing with Nato their involvement in the humanitarian effort."

Nato, meanwhile, continues to bomb Yugoslav targets close to the border with Albania - and along the main route out.