Massive repatriation of Kosovo refugees feared

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BRUSSELS - Refugee organisations in Europe fear that Western governments are planning a mass repatriation of asylum-seekers through the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (Fyrom) to Serbian-controlled former Yugoslavia, writes Andrew Marshall.

A highly secretive meeting of interior ministers and officials took place in Vienna last Thursday to discuss sending back ethnic Albanians from Kosovo through Fyrom, officials and refugee workers in several European capitals have told the Independent. The meeting was aimed at putting pressure on Skopje to reopen its border with Kosovo, officials said.

'It was surrounded by secrecy,' said Gerald Kador of Amnesty International in Vienna. 'We are very concerned about what might have been agreed.' The meeting was discovered after chance comments by a Dutch official alerted Claudia Roth, a Green MEP.

The meeting included representatives from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway as well as Fyrom, the sources said. Other countries may also have been represented, including the Netherlands. The meeting was organised by the Austrian Interior Ministry and a private think-tank. A memorandum of understanding was signed at the end of the meeting, officials say. Its terms have not been disclosed, but it is likely to have included assistance to Skopje in return for its co-operation.

Austrian Interior Ministry officials have refused to discuss the issues raised, and the meeting was shadowy even by the standards of the secretive groups that co-ordinate immigration, according to refugee workers.

There is no official estimate for the number of Kosovo Albanians in Western Europe, but they form a large part of the refugees from former Yugoslavia, with perhaps 200,000 in Germany alone.

It is believed the meeting was aimed at reopening the border between Fyrom and Kosovo, closed last October after complaints from the former about the number of refugees being returned.

(Photograph omitted)