War in the Balkans: The Refugees - Nations try to agree airlift plan

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The Independent Online
COUNTRIES OFFERING homes to up to 100,000 Albanian refugees met in Geneva yesterday to plan the largest ever organised resettlement of refugees in third countries.

Lyndall Sachs, spokesperson for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, said the ambassadors of the recipient nations were resorting to temporary resettlement in the absence of an alternative. The operation will begin in the next few days with the busing of refugees to Turkey. Airlifts to more distant countries will follow.

Adding to the political concern that removing the Albanians far from Kosovo might undermine resolve to force the Serbs to allow them to return home, Ms Sachs said that from a human point of view temporary resettlement in a third country was also considered the "least attractive" of options.

"But we are caught between a rock and a hard place," she said. "Macedonia wants some out before it will allow any more in. And at the moment we have a 25km queue of people in extremely precarious circumstances, vulnerable to disease and attack. There is a potential time bomb ticking out there.

"If you talk to refugees, of course most would want to stay around the area. Almost to a person, refugees only want to return home."

Germany yesterday offered the largest number of temporary homes - 40,000, with the United States offering 20,000, Turkey 20,000, and Norway, Italy, Canada and Greece 5,000 each. Britain, which shares the reluctance of several European states to the third country resettlement plan, is offering temporary sanctuary to "some thousands".

Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, had earlier insisted that resettlement away from Kosovo would amount to a "policy of despair" but has apparently capitulated to US pressure for refugees to be moved out of Macedonia, where the sealing of the border by the Macedonian government has created a long backup of refugees on the Kosovo side of the border.

Yesterday Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, proposed Britain's own three- stage refugee plan. The first is to feed and house them in their own region, the second is the interim removal of a minority and the third is their return to Kosovo. Mr Cook told Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav President, that he need not bother making any peace offer until he has agreed to the third. "We will not allow him to condemn the people of Kosovo to a life in exile," Mr Cook said.

Ms Sachs yesterday concentrated on the sense of dislocation involved in reset- tlement in countries far from home. "The best option for refugees is to go back home," Ms Sachs said. "The second is for them to be integrated into the country in which they are given asylum." Temporary resettlement trails in last.

The ambassadors of the receiving countries last night agreed that the resettlement scheme would first and foremost be voluntary and aim to keep families intact.

The most vulnerable will be taken out first. The nearest countries would take refugees first. After Turkey, a transfer to Romania will take place.