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Refugee airlift opens moral divide

NATO is united over bombing the Serbs but split over the massiveevacuation of refugees.

After two weeks of remarkable unity behind NATO's aerial bombardment of Yugoslavia, European governments have split over how best to help the 400,000 ethnic Albanians who have been deported from Kosovo since the war began.

Albania, which has taken in 226,000 refugees since NATO bombing began, opposes the US-backed airlift of its ethnic kin from Kosovo and has promised to take some of the refugees from Macedonia, despite being the poorest country in Europe.

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"Albania does not want to be part of the ethnic-cleansing mechanism," says Information Minister Musa Ulqini.

Public sympathy in Europe for the plight of the Kosovars has swelled in recent days, bolstered by grim TV footage of stranded refugees on the Macedonian border and reports of massacres in Kosovo. But the controversial idea of flying the refugees to distant lands has divided governments and international organizations.

France and Italy have said that they will not take any of the deportees, saying that dispersing them widely around the globe will only aid the ethnic cleansing of the province by making it harder for them ever to return.

Britain, Norway, and Germany, meanwhile, have overcome their initial doubts and said they will shelter thousands of the refugees currently stranded in Macedonia, whose government has said it will not host a large refugee population.

The first 91 refugees, exhausted and disoriented, arrived the morning of April 6 in the Norwegian capital, Oslo, while about 750 others were flown to Turkey.

Talks about sharing

Interior ministers from the 15 member states of the European Union were to meet April 7 to discuss how to share out the 20,000 refugees that their governments have said - somewhat reluctantly and under US pressure - that they will take temporarily.

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Half of them will go to Germany, officials in Bonn have promised. The country took in 350,000 refugees from Bosnia and Croatia during the early 1990s.

Turkey, whose empire once ruled the Balkans, has promised to take 20,000 refugees; Norway will provide refuge for 6,000; Canada will accept 5,000; and Australia has offered to shelter 4,000. The United States, which first proposed the airlift, will also take up to 20,000 refugees, and has won the reluctant support of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

UNHCR chief Sadako Ogata, said on April 6 that while "it is of course preferable that refugees should be protected and assisted in the region, humanitarian evacuation will ... be an exceptional measure."

But the EU commissioner in charge of humanitarian aid, Emma Bonino, attacked the plan, warning that, if Europe accepted 50,000 Kosovo Albanians, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic would expel another 100,000 in the next few days.

The problem is in Macedonia, where the Slav-dominated government is desperate not to swell the ranks of its own ethnic Albanian minority, which already accounts for 25 percent of its population.

"The international community has to persuade Macedonia that it is serious about helping it to ease the burden that it is caving in under, so as to get them to keep the border [with Kosovo] open and let the people who are on the border deeper into the country," explains Chris Yanovsky, a UNHCR spokesman.

With 120,000 refugees currently in Macedonia, and the government refusing to allow more than 20,000 of them to stay, "we have to take them out, we don't have the luxury of options," argues Mr. Yanovsky.

Stranded in no man's land

Some 85,000 more refugees are stranded in no man's land at the border, awaiting registration at painfully slow Macedonian checkpoints, while hundreds of thousands more are backed up deep into Kosovo, relief workers say, and about 10 people a day are dying.

The scale of the tragedy appears to have changed European minds. Only last week German Deputy Foreign Minister Gunter Verheugen said Western Europe should not take in Kosovo refugees because that "would mean that a speedy return was not possible." Such arguments might be seen as masking a simple unwillingness to welcome Albanian refugees, mostly Muslim peasants who though technically Europeans could hardly be more foreign to modern Western European eyes.

Certainly in Italy, where illegal immigrants from Albania have established notoriously violent organized crime gangs, public opinion is hostile to Albanians wherever they come from.

But elsewhere in Europe the last few days of continued persecution, and the American lead in offering shelter to the Kosovo Albanians, have softened many hearts.

"It is not a question of fearing invaders, but of bringing help to people who need it," said Marc Gentilini, head of the French Red Cross on April 6, criticizing his government's decision not to allow any refugees into France. "If this goes on, we will certainly be forced to change our policy."

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