International diplomats scrambled yesterday to head off a civil war in Macedonia that threatens to unravel years of Western policy in the Balkans.
European foreign policy supremo Javier Solana held talks with leaders of the Macedonian government and of the minority Albanian community in search of common ground. While he said a political solution was the only answer, Mr. Solana told reporters: "It is a mistake to negotiate with the terrorists, and we do not recommend it."
Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov was due to arrive in the Macedonian capital, Skopje, as well, after warning of "a new explosion in the Balkans."
But Macedonian authorities yesterday dismissed an offer for peace talks from ethnic-Albanian rebels. Moreover, Army troops launched a new offensive near Tetovo, the scene of sporadic clashes for the past week.
On the other side of the border, in Kosovo, NATO troops beefed up their presence to interdict supplies to the rebels. "This country has been a success story so far," says Cristina Gallach, spokeswoman for Solana. "We should not allow it to break down." Macedonia's 25 to 30 percent Albanian minority has so far managed to get along with the Slav majority in reasonable harmony - though often complaining of treatment as second-class citizens - and ethnic Albanians hold cabinet posts in the government. Guerrillas fighting in the north of the country say they want improved civil rights. Some support turning ethnic-Albanian dominated areas of the country into a "greater Kosovo."
The fighting has sparked fears around the world that the ethnic violence that engulfed the former Yugoslav republics of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia could now tear apart Macedonia, the only one to have avoided warfare so far.
Solana was seeking agreement from ethnic-Albanian and Macedonian-Slav political leaders, in and out of government, on a strong condemnation of the violence. "Clear isolation of the extremists should be the first step to return the situation to calm," said Ms. Gallach.
Mr. Ivanov was due to arrive in Skopje from Belgrade, Yugoslavia, where he urged the international community to set up "a firm obstacle to terrorist aggression" in Macedonia and southern Serbia, where ethnic-Albanian guerrillas have also been active in the Presevo Valley, just across the border from Kosovo.
NATO last week allowed Serbian troops into the Presevo "buffer zone" for the first time since the end of the Kosovo war in June 1999, to patrol an area near the Macedonian border. On Monday, NATO Secretary-General George Robertson pledged to beef up NATO patrols in Kosovo to cut off supplies to the rebels in Macedonia.
"We are determined that we will starve this limited number of localized extremists from being able to carry out their mischief and we will take what measures are necessary on the military front," Lord Robertson said, after meeting Macedonian Foreign Minister Srgjan Kerim at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
He called for more troops to bolster the 40,000-strong KFOR, the NATO-led force in Kosovo. But he said there was no question of NATO troops crossing into Macedonia to assist government soldiers and police. NATO troops in Kosovo currently have orders to shoot only in self-defense.
Macedonian officials have complained that KFOR is not doing enough to interdict men and supplies from Kosovo, which they say are feeding the rebellion. NATO spokesmen say KFOR border patrols and reconnaissance helicopters have seen no trace of major movement across the border over the past three weeks.
The border, in mountainous and snowy terrain, is hard to patrol. But "we have not detained anyone crossing the border because we have not seen anyone crossing the border and we don't believe anyone is crossing the border," said KFOR spokesman Richard Heffer.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor