War In The Balkans: Havens - Britain `should take in refugees'

PADDY ASHDOWN told Tony Blair yesterday that Britain should urgently admit thousands of Kosovar refugees to head off another humanitarian crisis in the camps across the borders from their homeland.

On his return from a five-day trip to the Balkans, where he acted as an unofficial envoy for the Prime Minister, the Liberal Democrat leader accused British ministers of double standards over the refugees.

Referring to Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development, he said: "It doesn't do much good for a British minister to roll up to the Macedonian government and give them a lecture on treating refugees when we in this country are taking 120 and Germany has taken 10,000."

The first Kosovar refugees being taken in by Britain are to arrive in Bradford tomorrow,where they will be housed at a disused mental hospital. But Mr Ashdown warned that Britain's "very laggardly" effort on refugees was not helping the pro-Western Macedonian government. "They are getting a bit tired of warm words; they want some action" Mr Ashdown said.

The situation in Macedonia was "very fragile" and Nato troops were being stoned by pro-Milosevic locals.

"One of the biggest factors in this war is becoming the instability in Macedonia ... For Milosevic, refugees are an instrument of war. We have to be prepared to win on the refugee battleground just as we have to be prepared to win on every other one".

Mr Ashdown said Nato had very nearly lost the battle 10 days ago, when only Mr Milosevic's decision to close the border with Albania had prevented "the terrifying sight of refugees dying in Nato's hands."

Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, insisted yesterday that the Government remained ready to admit "some thousands" of refugees.

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