War in Europe: Mercy flights will begin today

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THE UN will today start airlifting hundreds of refugee Kosovars to sanctuary in western Europe as a fresh wave of ethnic Albanians fleeing Serbian atrocities pours over the border into the neighbouring countries in the Balkans.

The first planeloads of refugees will be flown to France and Belgium as the long-awaited airlift gets under way. Britain has agreed to accept up to 10,000 refugees and is likely to be asked to start doing so in the next week.

As large numbers of ethnic Albanians continued to flee from Kosovo into neighbouring countries yesterday, the Macedonian government said that it would not accept any new refugee camps, increasing pressure on Western countries to honour their promises of sanctuary.

"We are trying to expand camps in Macedonia and we have approached the government to create new sites," Paul Stromberg, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said in Macedonia. "As I understand it right now they have said `No', so we are working to expand sites and give the existing sites a capacity of more than 85,000 people."

More than 8,000 refugees arrived in Albania yesterday, where they had to queue for processing in driving rain, and around 1,500 were allowed into Macedonia. "There is every expectation that there is going to be a massive influx this weekend," Judith Kumin, a UNHCR spokeswoman, said in Geneva.

From the Morini border post, the main crossing-point into Albania, there were indications that ethnic cleansing in Kosovo is taking place in new areas. Many of the latest arrivals are from Mitrovica, a mining town in the north of the province, where hundreds of thousands of Albanians were reported to be trapped.

Vlorentina Babj and her husband Mone tried to drive out of the town, but "they took our car". They took to the road on foot, but like many others from Mitrovica, they were turned back by the Serbs and told to return home, only to be ordered out once again when they got there. After walking some way, they were able to board a bus sent by Yugoslav authorities.

Refugees said that many thousands more are still travelling from Mitrovica. Shenol Muharremi, 22, a journalist, said 100,000 people from Mitrovica and surrounding villages were gathered in the neighbourhood of Tavnik when the police came and burned houses. "Now there is nobody."

Ms Kumin said the UNHCR had "activated two new countries", France and Belgium, to receive refugees. Today more than 300 refugees from the Stankovac camp on the outskirts of the Macedonian capital, Skopje,will be flown to Lyons in France on board three military planes.

They will be given temporary residence permits and put in "care centres" where they will receive treatment from doctors and psychologists. Eventually they will be housed by local families, the French foreign ministry said yesterday.

The Belgians will also receive around 400 people on two flights today, while Sweden, which has said it will take 5,000 refugees, is due to accept its first groups this weekend. About 16,000 refugees have already been evacuated from Macedonia to Europe and Turkey.

According to the UNHCR, 339,000 refugees were in Albania yesterday, 129,000 in Macedonia and 73,000 in Montenegro. Yesterday morning hundreds of people queued in the rain at the Brazde refugee camp for an evacuation flight from Macedonia, only to be told that it had been cancelled, apparently because of a shortage of slots at Skopje's airport.

Britain has not yet been asked by the UNHCR to accept its allocation of refugees. However, if the flood continues as expected, ministers believe that the request will come shortly. The Government is already drawing up contingency plans to house refugees in disused army barracks, schools and holiday camps around the UK. "We have agreed to give displaced persons protection and assistance outside the region on a temporary basis if necessary," a Home Office spokesman said.

The commission wants to relocate the Kosovars as much as possible in countries close to their home, in order to avoid complicating their hoped- for return. For that reason, offers by the United States and Canada are not being considered.

"For the time being we have set the offers from overseas destinations on the back burner with the understanding that we might have to activate them at any time," Ms Kumin said in Geneva. "As long as we have offers from European destinations, we are going to use them first."