War in the Balkans: Dying, as the West bickers

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REFUGEES FROM Kosovo are dying of disease and exhaustion while Western governments wrangle over plans to fly victims from the war zone.

More than 30 bodies were taken from the squalid refugee camp on the Macedonian frontier in bags yesterday as border guards donned gas masks to shut out the sickening stench from packed crowds waiting to get out of Yugoslavia.

Last night 85,000 refugees were still marooned in two cold and muddy stretches of no man's land. Many are succumbing to disease. "We need to get these people out," warned a UNHCR spokeswoman. "It is terrible there. It is extremely muddy. We have already weakened people who went through a harrowing experience for four days. They have not eaten."

With the total number of Kosovo refugees close to 850,000 - of whom more than 360,000 have fled since Nato strikes began 12 days ago - there are clear signs of panic in Western capitals over the scale of the disaster.

Governments met in Geneva yesterday and agreed to start moving refugees out of the region by bus and plane, but Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development, said talk of a huge air lift of refugees was irrelevant.

Speaking after touring refugee camps in Macedonia, Ms Short said: "I'm here in Macedonia and there are thousands and thousands of people on the other side of the border not being fed, babies are being born, people are becoming sick.

"If everyone is in a tizz in London talking about getting people out of the region, it's irrelevant to the crisis we have here."

The European Union aid commissioner, Emma Bonino, agreed, warning that planes could not lift more than a fraction of the refugees to safety and might clash with Nato's need to keep the airspace open for bombing raids.

Kosovo rebel fighters from the KLA complained that if refugees were dispersed all over the world, pressure on Serbia to allow them back will evaporate. Albania said it would refuse to let refugees leave, as this would be complicit with "ethnic cleansing". No refugees have been flown out of Macedonia or Albania so far. The first 90, needing urgent medical help, are expected to go to Norway today.

Talk of airlifts is directed partly at restive Macedonia, where the local Slav majority bitterly resents the Albanian influx and wants guarantees that the refugees will be moved on. The Skopje government said it would not accept any more unless it knows they will be found shelter elsewhere. But Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, needs to placate Macedonia if his plan to set up a safe haven, or "sanctuary", for 100,000 refugees patrolled by Nato troops is to get off the ground.

Skopje airport remained idle yesterday, leading Macedonia to accuse the West of reneging on its promises. "The air bridge did not start functioning because the countries which promised to accept the refugees did not issue permits for the planes to land," one official said. UN workers in Skopje said they feared that the operation may take days to prepare.

By then the numbers may have rocketed. By the end of today the UN expects the number of refugees to climb from 360,000 to 430,000. On Sunday alone the Serbs herded 34,000 Kosovars into Albania and 10,000 to Macedonia.

Western leaders are scrambling to co-ordinate a three-pronged policy on refugees, flying out a few, keeping most close to home, and continuing the air campaign in an effort to force Belgrade to let the refugees return home. Nato pledged to step up the air campaign last night after hitting air force, army and police headquarters near Belgrade at dawn yesterday.

But clear differences have emerged between the United States, which strongly backs airlifts, and the Europeans. The French Foreign Minister, Hubert Vedrine, has said evacuating large numbers would be "a victory" for Belgrade, while Germany, which housed 350,000 refugees during the Bosnian war, has made clear it does not want a repeat. Italy, which took in large numbers of refugees from Albania's own civil unrest, also wants to limit the flow.