Anger at Western truce may tip Macedonia balance

Paramilitaries warn of reprisals on ethnic Albanians in 72 hours, threatening civil war.

Anger buzzes through a crowd of Macedonian Slav refugees, mostly women and children from the village of Aracinovo, at a refugee center here in Skopje.

Many of the husbands and sons have left to join paramilitary forces, vowing to protect their families from ethnic-Albanian rebels.

The West has added insult to injury by escorting to safety the armed members of the National Liberation Army, who had given the refugees 15 minutes to leave their homes in Aracinovo.

"Western foreigners are arrogant to tell Macedonians not to defend themselves from terrorists," Vasilja, who is afraid to give her full name, shouts between broken sobs. "We must kill the Albanian terrorists, every last one."

Five months of sporadic fighting in Macedonia has sent 60,000 ethnic-Albanian refugees fleeing into Kosovo and left some 35,000 internally displaced persons homeless.

The West's attempts this week to impose a cease-fire, which would allow the NLA fighters in Aracinovo to retreat and political negotiations to resume, have further radicalized the Macedonian Slav population and resulted in a dramatic rise in support for paramilitary organizations.

"The increased activity of these paramilitary groups is potentially the most dangerous development in this conflict because it threatens to draw large segments of the population into the fighting," says Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch.

On Monday night, buses carrying 200 NLA fighters left Aracinovo, a village 5 miles from the center of Skopje where a pitched battle raged for three days last weekend.

The fighters were retreating toward Lipkovo, deep in rebel-held territory, and were escorted by lightly armed American troops from Camp Able Sentry, which usually provides logistical support to KFOR in neighboring Kosovo.

The NLA withdrawal was part of a deal brokered by European Union envoy Javier Solana and NATO representative Pieter Fieth on Sunday. The temporary cease-fire deal was supposed to allow the Macedonian Army to gain significant rebel territory and talks between Macedonian and ethnic-Albanian political parties to resume.

But something went wrong. A confidential source at Camp Able Sentry says the bus convoy was stopped by tanks manned by NLA rebels before it reached the agreed destination, and the rebels left the buses and disappeared.

"Now we have some extremely angry Macedonians on our hands," the American official said. "The terrorists are still very close to Skopje."

As the NLA guerrillas were making their getaway, 5,000 to 10,000 rioters gathered outside the parliament building in downtown Skopje, demanding that the government call off the deal and fire on the rebels. Macedonian paramilitary organizations have also signaled that they are prepared to take matters in their own hands, to ensure that the ethnic-Albanian insurgency is crushed.

"We had to agree to a temporary cease-fire because of outside pressure, but we are still going to eliminate the Albanian terrorists," Interior Minister Lubo Bosovski said in defense of the government's more conciliatory stance. "We won't let them get away alive."

Sending up a cheer that could be heard across the city, 50 protesters broke into the parliament building and threw boxes and papers out of broken windows. Macedonian paramilitary reservists in the crowd fired into the air, emptying clip after clip from their machine guns.

The crowd chanted "Let us kill the terrorists. We want to fight." At around 11 p.m., police general Risto Galevski told the crowd, "If you want to fight, you can come to any police station. We will give you uniforms and guns so that you can fight the terrorists."

Yesterday morning, heavy fighting was reported again in the Tetovo region. Even if peace talks are resumed, it may be too late for the Macedonian government to stop the country from sliding into widespread civilian warfare.

A group called Macedonian Paramilitary 2000 has shoved leaflets under the doors of many homes and shops telling Albanians they had 72 hours to leave the country. It warns that for every single soldier or policemen killed, 100 Albanians will be killed, 50 Albanians will be killed for every policemen or soldier crippled; and 10 Albanians will be killed, regardless of gender or age, for every serviceman wounded.

Many of Monday's demonstrators were Macedonian Slav refugees from villages captured by the NLA, who are irate that their government caved in to Western pressure and traumatized by rebel attacks.

"We were playing outside when the terrorists attacked our village," says Lidia Viljanovska, a 9-year-old refugee from the Macedonian Slav village of Brnjaci, 200 meters from Aracinovo. "We heard shooting and explosions in the village, and we saw fire streaking up in the sky."

She and other children hid in a nearby house with grandmother Blagonja Janevska until Macedonian security forces were driven out of the village by the advancing rebels. Hundreds of civilians fled with the retreating army.

"We could only take the clothes we were wearing and the bread I baked that morning," Mrs. Janevska cries. "Our house has been burnt and our crops are destroyed."

That was three weeks ago. Now, Lidia and her family are sheltering at one of Skopje's five refugee centers. Many refugee men have left to join paramilitaries. "Of course, we must protect ourselves," says Panda Stojkovski, another Macedonian refugee at the center says. "Until the Shiptars [a derogatory name for Albanians] are pushed out of Macedonia, no one can guarantee that it will be safe for us to go home."

On the Macedonia-Kosovo border, a steady stream of ethnic-Albanian refugees indicates that the warning threats of civilian violence are being taken seriously.

"We left Matejce because we were being shelled constantly," says Aliu Ibrahim, an ethnic-Albanian refugee coming out of the Macedonian checkpoint with two small children. "We stayed in Skopje for a few days but it isn't safe anymore. There is going to be a real war. Every time Mr. Solana comes, as soon as he turns his back, the Macedonians hit us even harder."

Just inside Kosovo, another family huddles by the side of the road. "I am taking my sisters and their children to safety," says Nurset Leza. "When I find them a place, I'm coming back to protect our home with my father. We'll take up guns if we have to. I personally know 20 other men who are ready to join the NLA."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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