Rebels set on 'war of liberation'

Albanian rebels are relaxed, but dug in, ahead of Army offensive.

Rebel Commander Mala is proud of his forward troops' work.

Surveying the embattled town of Tetovo through a pair of binoculars, he smiles as he points out the territory taken in the past week by his ethnic- Albanian rebels - the self-styled National Liberation Army, or UCK.

"UCK, UCK, UCK," beams the bearded fighter, waving toward the ridge on his left, the valley to the right, and the picturesque mountains behind him.

This group of rebels - about 40 at this site - appear well organized, well equipped, and more important, prepared to press on.

As fear grows that this new ethnic war will spread instability throughout the Balkans, international attempts are mounting to isolate the rebels (see NATO, page 10).

On the ground, the rebels spurn such efforts.

"We didn't want to take up arms, but we were forced to do it," says Mala, who uses a nom de guerre. "We have always been oppressed by the Slav boot.... Our vision and that of the Macedonian government is totally different. It is too late [for dialogue]."

The rebels - wearing US- and German-designed camouflage uniforms, with red and black shoulder patches that show the traditional two-headed eagle of Albanian nationalism - look like clones of the ethnic-Albanian forces who fought in Kosovo in the late 1990s.

Many, in fact, say they fought in that war also. They say they are unimpressed with Macedonian special police units - which are heavily Slav - and say that the ethnically mixed Army will have a difficult time coming to grips with the insurgents.

Mala and his comrades move freely on trails and roads in the hills above Tetovo and beyond - and seem relaxed, despite days of heavy bombardment.

A house that is accessed through a hole in a breeze-block wall serves as Mala's forward-command headquarters here. He serves water from glass pitchers, decorated prosaically with designs of oranges, pineapple, and strawberries. A wall clock with verses from the Koran, the Islamic holy book, is illumined by one dim candle. The Macedonian government shut off electricity to this whole valley.

Dozens of these mountainside villages here are almost exclusively ethnic Albanian and apparently support the rebels.

Children form a mock checkpoint at the battalion base in Selce, a village less than a mile behind the Lavce front. They wave guns fashioned from sticks and play war wearing headbands stitched with the letters "UCK," the same acronym used by the Albanians in Kosovo.

Pack trains carry sacks of grain - and even a 120-mm mortar tube, according to one Western witness - over a "safe" route to the base.

The fighting is already bringing 30 young volunteers each day into rebel ranks, commanders say, estimating that the total number of rebels stands at 2,000.

While that total may be an exaggeration, the volunteers are real: In the yard of Mala's headquarters, some 40 new recruits, mostly wearing civilian clothes - ski jackets, jeans, boots, and tennis shoes - stand at attention with new Kalashnikovs and salute, a little out of sync.

"Soon the war will spread all over Macedonia," says Arben Aliu, the nom de guerre of another commander at Selce, which serves as the headquarters of their third battalion. "We're not going to fight just in the mountains. We are waiting for the Macedonian Army to pull back from Tetovo. If they cause trouble to civilians, we will intervene."

"[The Macedonian security forces] are fighting in panic, shooting without any control," Mr. Aliu says, seated in a dark bar in the center of Selce. He - like all other rebels - won't allow his face to be photographed, fearing repercussions for his family.

"We are fighting for the same rights that people have been trying to achieve for years by political means, so we are trying this way now," he says, cradling an AK-47 assault rifle in his lap. The "enemy" is the Army and police, he adds: "We are not fighting civilians. This is a liberation war."

Still, the rebels don't speak with the same voice. Aliu, for example, echoes UCK communiques stating Macedonian borders should remain intact. Mala says he is fighting for an "independent," separate Albanian state of Western Macedonia.

Whatever their cause, the conflict is sending shock waves through Macedonia, which is ruled by a fragile coalition government that includes ethnic Albanian political parties who for years have championed peace over war to achieve equal status.

The impact is being felt across Western Macedonia, where Albanians are in the majority. In Lavce, especially, government shelling and the rebel presence have turned the farming village into a virtual ghost town.

"I can't live here. In every way, we are bombed," says Azem Bejrame, an English-speaking resident whose house was struck by a mortar Monday. "We want to have our rights, but they don't allow us."

Macedonian Slav residents here are even fewer, but appear to have a special, protected status. A piece of paper in a plastic sleeve is tied on the gate of one house. It reads: "Don't touch," and is signed "UCK."

With help from Mala, one elderly Macedonian couple walks down their wooden steps. "The bombardment is very bad now, and we don't know what to do," says Tomo Blazeski, who then asks Mala to help get his ailing wife to Tetovo on horseback.

The rustic scene looks like a set from "The Sound of Music" - with a snow-capped mountain back-drop, farmsteads, and almond trees in fragrant blossom.

But despite the spring-like yellow primroses emerging from winter along the high mountain paths, the rebels here are serious.

Mala and Aliu say they fought in the war in Kosovo, and drew inspiration from it in this fight in their homeland. Aliu says he has been working for six years on building the rebellion here, and has long been wanted by Macedonian police.

"All the time, Albanians are called extremists, but we are not," Mala says. We ask "only for rights like Europeans," he says, before falling into the language of rebellions everywhere: "Maybe we will have some losses, but we'll fight to the last soldier."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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