In a bid to thwart ethnic-Albanian insurgents fighting on Kosovo's border with southern Serbia - where a string of recent attacks threatens a new Balkan war - elite Yugoslav troops reentered a small stretch of buffer zone before dawn yesterday.
But even as the NATO-approved effort to restore order along one part of the Kosovo border began, another ethnic-Albanian insurgency in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia spread west toward the city of Tetovo. Heavy gunfire could be heard during a pro-rebel rally, where organizers reportedly claimed all ethnic Albanians - who make up one-quarter of Macedonia's 2 million people -should be considered rebel supporters.
Few other events illustrate how ethnic-Albanian guerrillas have become NATO's main problem, nearly two years to the day after the Western military alliance began its bombing campaign to end Yugoslavia's brutal crackdown on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
The political status of the Serbian province remains unresolved. And ethnic Albanians in nearby areas inspired, and in many cases aided, by Kosovo's former rebels are using their same tactics - attacks on government forces that could prompt harsh reprisals and win support for their cause - as they fight to "liberate" all ethnic-Albanian dominated areas in the Balkans. Some even talk of redrawing borders, using Kosovo as an anchor to create a "Greater Albania."
By allowing Yugoslav forces into the buffer zone, however, NATO is signaling confidence that the new democratic government of President Vojislav Kostunica will not repeat the excesses of the past. Last autumn, Mr. Kostunica ousted Slobodan Milosevic, who led the country through four disastrous ethnic wars in a decade and is indicted by The Hague Tribunal for war crimes.
While NATO helicopters buzzed overhead, Yugoslav soldiers - without tanks or heavy weapons, and with strict instructions to steer clear of ethnic-Albanian villages - are fanning out along fog-shrouded mountain terrain known as Sector Charlie East - a nine-square-mile region. Their arrival is part of a NATO-brokered cease-fire agreed on Monday. It ironically grants permission for Yugoslav troops to effectively take on peacekeeping duties amid a population they repressed in the past. The deal also promises to begin addressing ethnic-Albanian grievances through a political dialogue on March 19.
"This is a perilous moment," says Daniel Serwer, director of the Balkans Initiative at the US Institute of Peace in Washington. "The Albanians clearly want to provoke the Yugoslav Army, and it could easily be provoked." Close cooperation between NATO, Yugoslavia, and Macedonia are the key to a solution, he says. "You have to stand up to extremists. If they are able to do what they want, where will the moderates be?"
Albanian guerrilla chiefs warn that they will not be held responsible for "spontaneous" attacks on Serb forces, despite the cease-fire. And local Albanians are not convinced by the assurances of good troop behavior from Belgrade. "Even though Slobodan Milosevic is gone, the Army commanders have stayed the same," says Baki Bechiri, a villager in Trnava. "This is the same Army that harassed us two years ago. They don't need to return."
On a second front not covered by the cease-fire, Macedonian police for the past two days clashed with a smaller band of ethnic-Albanian guerrillas.
The Yugoslav military operation is designed to cut off a supply route from the guerrillas, operating in the Presevo Valley area of the buffer zone, to insurgents in northern Macedonia. The Macedonian force calls itself the National Liberation Army and uses the same acronym, UCK, as the former Kosovo rebel force. Their destabilization campaign has sent shockwaves across the small country. Moderate Albanian leaders who are members of the Macedonian government have been calling for an end to the violence, though radical elements are gaining support. But until yesterday, that insurgency appeared limited to areas near the southern Serbia-Kosovo buffer zone.
Macedonia is the only republic to emerge from the breakup of Yugoslavia unscathed by the ethnic conflicts that ravaged Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. Albanian parties are publicly committed to nonviolence and are members of a fragile coalition government. But the fragile ethnic makeup of the country provides an explosive mix.
"We are on the fault line," says Arben Xhaferi, the deputy prime minister and leader of Democratic Party of Albania. People are frustrated after a decade of working peacefully for Albanian rights, he says, and instead were "humiliated and achieved nothing.
"Now the Albanian people are transformed to the military option, and it's very difficult to put this military soul back in the bottle," Mr. Xhaferi says. "If we make a mistake, this uprising can grow very fast. It's a long-term threat."
Several thousand demonstrators at a pro-peace march in Skopje on Tuesday, attended by Xhaferi, shouted, "We are not terrorists." But some elements of the crowd chanted slogans in favor of the rebels, and waved Albanian flags.
A counter rally - to protest the "terrorism of the Macedonian state" - was held Wednesday in Tetevo. Protesters reportedly cheered when they heard heavy shooting from a skirmish to the north. The rally turned violent, and two local journalists had to seek shelter in a police station.
The only solution, Xhaferi says, is full independence for Kosovo - which the West has so far refused - and a recognition of equal rights for Albanians in Macedonia. But he notes that those dreams are becoming more distant, because the current violence makes it easy to portray Albanian nationalism as dangerous.
Still, Macedonia's relatively peaceful past may help it overcome the current crisis, says Isa Rusi, editor of the magazine Lobi, in Skopje. "Who are these rebels? They are doing more harm for Albanians regionwide, who don't accept that kind of fighting," he says.
"In the Balkans, anything is possible," Mr. Rusi says. "But if we managed not to have a war all this time, then we have the potential to keep the peace."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor