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Europe confronts a rising tide of refugees

Germany convened an emergency meeting yesterday. In Kosovo, drive tooust ethnic Albanians hits Pristina.

Once again in the 20th century, Europe is being tested on its ability and political will to cope with a wave of refugees.

Yesterday, Germany - unwilling to accept any of as many as 500,000 ethnic Albanians fleeing the war in Kosovo - held an emergency international meeting near Bonn to quickly send resources to the Balkans to keep refugees in the region.

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Germany also pledged "massive aid" and raised the idea that countries in the region who harbor the refugees ultimately be reimbursed by European Union nations with fewer refugees.

France also was among those promising relief. On Wednesday, the United States pledged $50 million to aid the refugees.

On the ground, the situation has continued to deteriorate, with Serbs reportedly loading trains and buses with ethnic Albanians to speed their exodus.

Last night, thousands of residents of Pristina, the provincial capital of Kosovo, joined the nearly 100,000 refugees that have crossed the southern border into the northern Albanian town of Kukes.

"All of Pristina is here," says Irsan Prenioi, an ethnic Albanian Kosovar who had walked for hours through the night with his pregnant sister.

He said that masked Serb soldiers entered his sister's home early in the afternoon demanding that they turn over all of their valuables and immediately abandon the apartment.

With hundreds of others, they were loaded onto one of a long line of buses. They were driven to a drop-off point near Prizren, where they were instructed to walk 15 kilometers to the Albanian border.

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In a province where the entire population is little more than 2 million, the pattern of action of Serb forces in Kosovo recalls the refugee wave triggered by the 1992 Bosnian war in which Germany took in more than 350,000 Bosnians, the most of any country in Europe.

The current wave from Kosovo has created a volatile situation along national borders. Northern Albanian border towns like Kukes, Kruma, and Bajaram Curri until recently served as KLA base camps for mounting guerrilla attacks on Serb forces.

In the past few months, however, Serb forces mined the border and evacuated southern Kosovo villages where KLA soldiers once found shelter on their way north. Townspeople in Kukes and international relief workers report that dozens if not hundreds of KLA members have been stuck for more than a month on the Albanian side of the border.

A Serb ambush killed 14 KLA soldiers three days ago when a band of 30 tried to cross the border, according to Ramiza Sinonaj, a young KLA soldier in Kukes. Other such incidents are being reported.

Town locals and international observers believe that the Serbs have a network of spies providing intelligence on KLA movements to facilitate the capture of KLA soldiers.

NATO airstrikes marked the beginning of a new phase of Serb aggression against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. Refugees say that Serb military, police, and paramilitary troops are acting in concert and appear to have progessed from rural villages to larger towns.

The first wave of refugees were from villages in the southern and western regions of Kosovo.

Within the past few days, the exodus has included inhabitants of the towns of Prizren, Jakova, and Pec. Wednesday night residents were being driven from Pristina.

"They followed our every step with guns and knives," said Pristina resident Nerita Gashi as she huddled under a blanket at the Morini border crossing, "We didn't want to give up our houses."

"The idea of autonomy is dead," says Owen O'Sullivan, the head of the Kukes regional office of the OSCE.

He says the ethnic Albanians have been pushed out to such an extent that they will have little power or even a presence in Kosovo when the Serbs have completed their current campaign of terror.

Today, refugees wait for hours at the Kukes post office for an opportunity to telephone for help from relatives abroad.

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