War in the Balkans: Relocation - France turns its back as global evacuation starts

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AS 1,400 of Kosovo's Albanians were flown to Turkey yesterday, and 91 to Norway, the global dispersal of more than 100,000 refugees began.

However, Germany drastically reduced the numbers it had been expected to take, from 40,000 to 10,000. "Our priority is to provide humanitarian assistance in the region," an interior ministry spokesman said.

The German government did not want to appear to be colluding in the Serbian policy of deporting the people of Kosovo, he insisted, and so as many refugees as possible would remain in the region.

A first batch of 700 Kosovans who had suffered particularly badly will arrive in Germany today from Skopje.

The United States will temporarily house 20,000 refugees at the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. "We wanted to show that we are willing to do our part," said one senior US official. Officials said it would take several days before the refugees would begin being transported.

The 91 exhausted refugees arriving in Norway yesterday were from 17 families. Trudging off the plane at about 4 am, most carried a few belongings or a sleeping child in their arms as they were immediately brought by bus to a refugee centre for food, sleep and registration.

About one-third of the group were children, the youngest just 15 days old. It also included elderly and several pregnant women.

"We are so happy to be here. You Norwegians are wonderful to us," said a 27-year-old man accompanied by two sisters and a niece. He believed his 60-year-old mother and another sister were in a British refugee camp in Macedonia.

France will take no refugees. Reflecting up to a point the German line, Lionel Jospin's government says that it opposes - politically and strategically - the dispersal of the human tide flowing from Kosovo.

To move them in large numbers to other countries would be to "play into the hands of Milosevic"; it would be to assist and solidify the "ethnic cleansing" of the Albanian majority of the province.

The French government's position - echoing uncomfortably a similar attitude struck during the Bosnian war - has provoked an outcry in France. Marc Gentilini, president of the French Red Cross, said it was "embarrassing" that the "homeland of human rights" should be offering no refuge to the hundreds of thousands of people piling up in camps in Macedonia and Albania.

There was little risk they would wish to stay in France, he said. "Their dearest wish is to return to their country." In the meantime the French official position - that they should be housed and fed in camps near the border - was politically and practically unworkable.

The inadequate local infrastructure and the opposition of the Macedonian government made it impossible for aid agencies and the UN to cope with the vast numbers still crossing the border.

An Italian defence ministry official said some 180 Italian military doctors and nurses were to be ferried to Albania last night to set up a camp hospital and help with aid operations for Kosovo refugees. The group, which is due to land in Albania this morning, will precede a 1,500-strong armed military force Italy plans to send to help ensure the safety of around 200,000 refugees who have fled across the Albanian borders.

The hospital, due to be set up near the port city of Durres, is expected to have space for 80 in-patients and have the capacity to treat 200 each day.