War in the Balkans: The Continuing Exodus - Europe offers states bribe to take refugees

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WEST EUROPEAN governments were warned to move urgently to ease the pressure on Macedonia yesterday amid signs that Skopje, determined to close its own doors to the tide of refugees, secretly bused thousands of Kosovars and dumped them on the Albanian border on Tuesday night.

Moving to pre-empt an unseemly row over who will bear the biggest share of Kosovo refugees, the European Commission in Brussels called on member states to first dip into an emergency reserve of pounds 200m to "buy off" Yugoslavia's neighbouring states.

Roughly half of the emergency money would be earmarked to help to alleviate the pressure on Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro, which are all believed to be in danger of political destabilisation.

In what smacked of a bribe to get Macedonia, in particular, to keep its doors open, the commission dangled the prospect of an immediate cash package for Macedonia and a long-term free trade and political co- operation deal going beyond anything previously available. Hans Van den Broek, the EU commissioner for foreign relations, even spoke of offering the Skopje authorities an association agreement, often the first step to EU membership.

The unspoken idea is to avoid EU splits over refugees coming to western Europe by getting the frontline states to keep their borders open. "I would hesitate to use the word `reward'," Mr Van den Broek said. "We need to do this so we can ask them to co-operate fully in helping the refugees." It was important to allow as many Kosovars as possible to remain in the region to "avoid giving the wrong signal both to Milosevic and to the Kosovars".

Emma Bonino, the European commissioner for overseas aid, said that it was "regrettable" the Macedonians had apparently moved up to 10,000 Kosovars to the Albanian border without informing agencies. She was also harsh in her criticism of the frantic efforts to bundle people on to planes for destinations as "bizarre" as Cuba and Guam: "These people are not parcels."

Ms Bonino said the priority had to be to help Kosovars to remain in the region. Airlifts should be used only as a last resort and if the people volunteer.

She stressed the need to alleviate the pressure on the frontline states. Any effort to create an internationally overseen humanitarian haven within Kosovo for the ethnic Albanians would require the presence of ground troops.

EU interior ministers were last night urged by the commission to be prepared to open their doors to the most needy of the Kosovars.