On-again, off-again Balkan war

Macedonian forces launched a new offensive ahead of today's scheduled signing of a peace accord.

Sitting in a Skopje cafe Saturday morning, Branko Geroski, the editor in chief of Dnevnik, Macedonia's main daily newspaper, was in a relatively optimistic mood, given his enraged editorial a few days earlier and the fear that the country is on the verge of civil war. Normally a voice of moderation, at the end of last week Mr. Geroski exploded, and in essence, called for total war.

"The Macedonian must choose between fighting for freedom or death," he wrote. His commentary was a reaction to the ethnic-Albanian rebel attack on the northwestern town of Tetovo, which came shortly after both Macedonian and ethnic-Albanian politicians had agreed - under intense Western pressure - to a shaky peace settlement that is supposed to be signed today.

What particularly galled Geroski was the passivity of the Macedonian Army and the admonishments from the West. "Whenever we respond to Albanian attacks, the international community says, 'Stop. Use proportional power,' " he said. "An ambassador told me, 'If you use too much power, maybe Arben Xhaferi [one of the two leading Albanian political negotiators] won't sign.' But I don't care. My responsibility is to get this lunatic Georgevski [the Macedonian prime minister] to sign. The Albanians are NATO's problem."

So why has his mood lifted? "We finally overreacted, retaliated, and it worked. We said our airplanes are just going to look, yet we threw bombs from the planes and denied it.... The Albanians took heavy losses and withdrew. We have Tetovo fully under the control of the Macedonian forces. And now we can sign the agreement."

But a short trip to Tetovo and the villages in the surrounding mountains a few hours after Geroski's pronouncements exposed how unpredictable, contradictory, and confusing this strange war in Macedonia is becoming. Even as the fighting outside Skopje is intensifying, many here are saying this is the typical Balkan pattern - all-out fighting before signing a peace deal.

It's about 3 p.m. The road winds through the low mountains. It's deserted. No Macedonian soldiers, no Macedonian police, no checkpoints. On the streets of Tetovo, a few mangy dogs scrabble about, and a few civilians walk by closed-up shops. No signs, once again, of the Macedonian Army or soldiers. An Albanian taxi driver agrees to drive the back roads through cornfields and sunflower fields into the woods, where three Albanian rebels are manning the entrance to what they call "the liberated territory" of Macedonia.

This is just the kind of claim that confirms to the Macedonians that the Albanians are no longer fighting for equal constitutional rights, but for territory. Climbing up into the hills, there's sporadic gunfire and plumes of smoke from mortars billowing out of houses near the mosque in a village called Neproshteno. And up in the old cobblestone village of Dobroshte, dozens of men are lolling about the main square, drinking tea and coffee and talking on cellphones.

This is where Commander Matoshi, a former economics student at the university in Pristina, Kosovo, often meets foreign journalists, international monitors, and diplomats. Two years ago, he was collecting funds from Macedonia and crossing the border to help fellow Albanians fight for independence in the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), as well as assisting NATO when possible. Today, he says, NATO's mission will be even harder. And he is hoping that what he calls NATO leader George Robertson's Plan B will be implemented. It would establish a protectorate across all of Macedonia, rather than in just the Albanian-concentrated areas. When asked what would initiate Plan B, he says, "continued fighting."

As for the Macedonians like Geroski, this Albanian notion of a NATO-Albanian partnership is precisely the attitude that has caused such anti-Western anger.

"This creature of the NLA [the Albanian rebels' acronym] made by Americans and British in Kosovo are out of control. They feel backed by the US and the British, and they are, in a very political way," he said, referring to the salaries paid by the international community in Kosovo to former KLA soldiers who are now part of the UN-sanctioned Kosovo Protection Corps. And yesterday, as fighting intensified around Radusha just north of Skopje, the site of the reservoir that supplies the capital with water, the Macedonian Army claimed that hundreds of soldiers were crossing the border from Kosovo, and NATO did nothing about it.

Geroski, like many Macedonians, fears that a NATO protectorate across the whole terrain will effectively create ethnic cantons, and then division of the country will be just a matter of time.

Another heavily armed commander with several cellphones arrives at the Dobroshte cafe and announces himself as one of the men on President Bush's blacklist of Albanians who cannot enter the US. He was a literature and journalism student and is, of course, disappointed, having hoped to go to the US one day. He's just started a new political party and says that if the West would allow members of the NLA to the negotiating table, much more could be achieved and assured. "Because all of our politicians - both Macedonians and Albanians - have become corrupted, like Asiatic despots," he says.

He claims that his job is to travel the terrain explaining to every soldier why they have to put down their guns, even though he does not believe this peace agreement will resolve the problem of Albanians achieving equal citizen status.

Given Geroski's claim that the Army was in total control of Tetovo, it was puzzling when the blacklisted commander offered to take visitors back to the outskirts of Skopje. It seems clear that the rebels have the capacity to cut off roads and menace the capital at any time.

As Bekim, a young Albanian in Tetovo who spent much of the last week hiding in his basement, said yesterday, "We know it's propaganda. The politicians must explain to people in other towns in Macedonia that they have force. But we who live here know what happened last night. Macedonian police were shooting into empty Albanian stores. Drunk reservists in my neighborhood were shooting from apartment windows. Until now, we didn't have problems with our neighbors. But my Macedonian neighbor and I just had a coffee, and it's beginning. We don't know what to say to each other."

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