Camouflage-clad Commander Mala of the National Liberation Army sits on a long sofa in his headquarters in a northern Macedonian village, the stump of his left hand - lost while fighting in Kosovo - wrapped in an olive-green handkerchief.
In front of him is a coffee table spread with maps, two large hand grenades, and a satellite telephone. Albanian and NLA flags drape the walls.
As he speaks of the rebel group's latest action, Mala has no regrets for an attack that killed eight Macedonian soldiers, breaking a month-long cease-fire and threatening to reignite fighting that shook the country in February and March.
"It was an unavoidable confrontation," he says, adding that the government forces were sent to take over an NLA headquarters in the western Macedonian village of Vejce.
The NLA claims to be fighting for equal rights for the ethnic Albanians, who make up between a quarter and a third of Macedonia's population. Ethnic Albanians accuse the government of discriminating against them in employment, education, and the right to citizenship.
Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski was expected to use the attack when he met with President Bush yesterday, to make the case for US help in antiterrorism training.
The two were also expected to discuss further the US and Europe support for a plan to include more ethnic-Albanian politicians in Macedonia's ruling coalition.
Before the meeting, Mr. Trajkovski said he had asked Secretary of State Colin Powell to classify the NLA as a terrorist group, which would make fundraising for the group illegal in the US.
After the fighting earlier this year, the government opened discussions with moderate Albanian political leaders in April.
State Department spokesman Philip Reeker told reporters yesterday that the US strongly opposed any NLA presence at the table. "We have legitimate political forces that are working together in Macedonia ... and that's the process that President Trajkovski intends to pursue and that we fully support."
For Mala and his cohorts, the barrel of the gun is the only way to keep ethnic Albanian issues on the agenda.
"We called for [the soldiers] to surrender," says Commander Sokoli, another Kosovo veteran whose nom de guerre means falcon in Albanian. "We would have disarmed them and let them go," he says. Instead, they opened fire, which the rebels returned.
This account sharply contradicts the government version: that a police and Army patrol was ambushed in the mountains above Tetovo, Macedonia's second-largest city. The government calls the incident a "massacre."
The attack touched off days of riots in the ethnically mixed city of Bitola, where Macedonians destroyed at least 50 Albanian-owned businesses. Four of the soldiers killed in the weekend clash were from Bitola.
And it contributed to Monday's resignation of the Macedonian defense minister, Ljuben Paunovski.
Harald Schenker, an adviser in Macedonia to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, says: "Had you asked me a week ago, I would have said obviously the political factor has regained control." Now, he is less certain.
Regardless, he says, "The political dialogue has to go on. They have to find a formula that pleases both sides."
Commander Mala is eager to show off his army's readiness to take on the Macedonian state, if negotiations fail. In a driveway across a muddy lane, about a dozen recruits clean and oil machine guns. Another practices carrying and aiming a 3-foot long bazooka.
Both commanders made a point of distancing themselves from any form of fundamentalism, to combat accusations that they are terrorists, as the Macedonian government calls them.
Nearly all ethnic Albanians in Macedonia are Muslim, but these NLA commanders steadfastly say their rebellion has nothing to do with religion.
The NLA asserts that its fight is for national rights and exclusively secular values. In addition, many of its fighters from Kosovo hail from areas where Albanian Muslims and Catholics live together harmoniously.
Mala says no "mujahideen" fighters would ever be accepted by the NLA. "They can go and fight in Chechnya," he says.
"If we're killed in battle, we'll be buried in that flag," Sokoli adds, pointing to the Albanian national flag in the window.
The guerrillas also are eager to show off their organization and discipline in recruiting new members, displaying detailed questionnaires for prospective recruits, certificates of induction, and laminated ID cards with digitized photos for new members.
The rebels are coy about how they finance their activities. Mala denies allegations the rebels are involved in smuggling to fund their struggle. His cause relies on patriotic Albanians for support, he says.
The Macedonian government, however, accused the guerrillas of forcibly recruiting local villagers in March, after the NLA took control of a dozen mountain villages near Tetovo.
The appearance of the guerrillas on the scene has created a new tension between ethnicity and citizenship, particularly in a country where an Albanian political party is an integral part of the governing coalition.
A dramatic example came two weeks ago, when NLA members abducted the deputy commander of the Kumanovo police, and brought him blindfolded to Mala's headquarters.
"If he's an Albanian, why did he come here in uniform?" Mala asks. He declines to comment on media reports that the police commander was subjected to questioning about the positions and tactics of government security forces.
US peacekeepers serving as part of NATO's Kosovo force clashed in early March on the Kosovo border with troops commanded by Mala. Two NLA soldiers were shot and wounded in the incident, along the vaguely defined mountain border. Mala defends his force's actions, saying they were fighting on their "own land," and had to protect their headquarters in a village school, even if KFOR had established that it was on the Kosovo side of the border.
It could have been worse, Mala asserts. "Really we could have killed 20 of them. But it was very foggy, and we waited to see if they were Macedonians or Americans," firing only in the air.
American troops proceeded to besiege the school for nearly 20 hours before allowing at least 50 rebels to escape back into Macedonia.
"It was an incident we regret," Mala says, expressing respect for KFOR, and American soldiers in particular.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor