War in the Balkans: `The plane is going to Turkey,' said the official. `But don't tell the refugees. They might refuse to get on'

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"THE PLANES are all going to Turkey but we would kindly like to ask the reporters not to tell the refugees because we have had problems," said the stern woman in the navy-blue trouser suit.

The refugees thought they were going to Germany where many Albanians have relatives, but a rude shock was awaiting them.

The woman continued: "Many refuse to get on to the buses and the aeroplanes when we tell them where they are really going."

The spokeswoman for Skopje International Airport was not making a sick joke, she was frostily serious. Even as she spoke a bus-load of Kosovar refugees was delivered to the airport entrance. These exhausted people were made to stand in yet another queue for yet another forced exile. They looked numb with bewilderment, terrified and helpless.

"We have been told we are going to Germany," said Fatmir Beuteschi, 28, pushing his head through the window of the runway bus that was taking him to the Bulgarian chartered Tupolev airliner. He did not know the awful truth of his exile even at this late point.

"I want to go to Germany, I have relatives in Germany."

Informed that he, his sister and his wife were going to Turkey, his face dropped in disbelief. He was speechless.

Macedonia is turning nasty. The government has made it clear it wants nothing to do with the refugees from Kosovo who have swarmed across its borders. It only agreed to let them cross when it received an assurance from the West that the refugees would be airlifted out. Now it is resorting to trickery, lies and brute force to speed up the process.

Under the cover of darkness on Monday night, 1,491 refugees were flown out of Skopje airport on 10 flights, all but one of which were heading for Turkey. When one refugee tried to run away he was frog-marched on board by security men. Yesterday morning another 600 refugees were flown out of the Macedonian capital - all bound for the same destination.

The Macedonians were ruthless and disingenuous. Loaded on to crowded buses at either the border 10 miles away or at the refugee tent camp that had grown up near by, the Kosovars had been told they were being taken on a journey. Some were told they were going to Germany; many were told nothing.

At the airport they were met by armed police who had donned white protective masks and rubber gloves.

Standing in the queue for the buses that took them to the planes, the refugees were a pitiful sight: old men in filthy boots, fragile old women with nothing more that carpet slippers on their feet, young women with crying babies wrapped in dirty blankets, young children staring helplessly at their father for an answer he could not provide.

All these people were forced on to the planes without knowing if they would ever return. It was the final insult: helpless, homeless and stateless, it appeared they were now being robbed of whatever hope they may have managed to retain.

"We have been treated like animals," cried Isha Zigodi, a father of seven, forced from his home in the Kosovo capital, Pristina. "These people have done everything they can to get us out of their country. I don't want to go to Turkey. It is up to Nato to take us all home as soon as possible."

The refugees were bussed towards the planes where they were hurriedly forced up the steps. It seemed to be more luck than judgement if families were able to stay together. One elderly man, barely able to walk even with crutches, apparently realised his family were on another plane. He was forced to walk several hundred yards to the other aircraft.

The West had previously agreed that an airlift was the only feasible way to deal temporarily with the refugees. A number of nations, including Britain, the United States, Germany and Norway, have agreed to house more than 100,000 refugees between them. The first of these refugee flights is due to take place today.

But it is the manner in which the Macedonians have acted that has sparked international concern. "We strongly oppose this operation because people are being sent away and families are being split up," said a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

"These people have been through enough distress and this is adding to it. I have lost count of the number of people who have come up to us in the camps and said their families are being put on the planes against their will."

Last night, the Macedonian Prime Minister, Ljubco Georgievski, brushed aside such criticisms, telling The Independent that his officials had told the refugees where they were going. "It is unfortunate that there is such negative propaganda that the foreign media have aimed at our country," he said.

Mr Georgievski said Macedonia was being forced to deal with the refugee problem with only meagre assistance from the West. "The Republic of Macedonia is the only innocent victim of this war," he said.