Surprise choice Lubbers is UN refugee chief

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Ruud Lubbers, the former prime minister of the Netherlands, finally ended his long quest for a top international job yesterday when he was unexpectedly nominated as UN high commissioner for refugees.

Ruud Lubbers, the former prime minister of the Netherlands, finally ended his long quest for a top international job yesterday when he was unexpectedly nominated as UN high commissioner for refugees.

Passed over during the past 10 years for the position of European Commission president and Nato secretary general, Mr Lubbers emerged as the surprise choice of the UN's secretary general, Kofi Annan, to succeed Japan's Sadaka Ogata.

The decision provoked astonishment from diplomats around the world. "Ruud who?" asked a European Union diplomat when told of the news.

It even provoked astonishment in the Netherlands where the Cabinet had endorsed another candidate, the environment minister, Jan Pronk, for the position. Wim Kok, the current Dutch prime minister, described the move as an honour for the country but said that he "greatly regretted" the decision not to give the job to Mr Pronk, who is a political ally.

Mr Lubbers, who was the Dutch prime ministerfrom 1982 to 1994, said that Mr Annan had telephoned him last week to discuss his "difficulties with and objections to Pronk". Mr Annan is expected to announce his recommendation to the UN General Assembly, which usually approves his choice for senior positions.

The Dutch environment minister's leaden style is said to have been his biggest weakness in the battle to succeed the current agency chief, who steps down at the end of December after 10 years in the post.

For Mr Lubbers, the appointment is the culmination of an ambition for the international stage which, at one point, seemed likely to propel him to one of Europe's top jobs. When Jacques Delors stepped down from the European Commission presidency at the end of 1994, Mr Lubbers was one of the favourites to succeed, but failed to clinch the job because he was vetoed by Germany's Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Mr Lubbers' objections to the speed of German reunification had gone down badly in Bonn, hitting his prospects again, a year later, when the Nato post came up. But the appointment will come as a blow to Bernard Kouchner, the UN's top official in Kosovo, who had expected to land the position himself. Mr Kouchner, the charismatic founder of the medical charity Medécins Sans Frontiÿres, let it be known that he was in line for the job. Paddy Ashdown, the former leader of Britain's Liberal Democrats, was thought likely to take over as the UN's Kosovo administrator if Mr Kouchner moved.

In another appointment, Mr Annan will be naming the veteran UN official Thoraya Ahmed Obaid as executive director of the UN Population Fund, making her the first Saudi Arabian woman to hold a top UN post.

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