Struggle to avert new Balkan war

Fighting continued Sunday in a Macedonian village as EU, NATO try to broker peace.

The phone rings persistently in a tiny grocery in Singilic, a suburb of the Macedonian capital, Skopje, just a mile from the epicenter of fighting between Macedonian security forces and ethnic-Albanian rebels.

Shopkeeper Nehat Emini runs to answer it. Usually, the calls are from refugees in Kosovo asking if their houses are still standing. This time it is Mr. Emini's ethnic-Albanian relatives in southern Serbia begging him to leave his shop and flee to safety.

Most of the inhabitants of Singilic, both Albanians and Macedonians, left when fighting erupted in the neighboring village of Aracinovo on Friday.

"I must stay at my shop. There are still a few families here, and they need food," says Emini, clenching his fists. "But I'm afraid the fighting will spread to our village. Many of our Macedonian neighbors have been armed with machine guns, so I had to send my wife and children to Kosovo."

Over the weekend, the Macedonian Army and police continued a new offensive here against the ethnic-Albanian National Liberation Army, which holds positions only 5 miles from the center of the Macedonian capital.

NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson has strongly condemned the assault as "complete folly," and said Macedonia is "on the brink of a bloody civil war."

At the root of the conflict are demands by the 30-percent Albanian minority for constitutional and other changes that the Macedonians fear could splinter the country.

Macedonian forces have gained no ground in the military action, which observers say is an attempt by a group of militant Macedonian politicians to get the upper hand in gridlocked peace talks. In the past few days, hawkish Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski has gained sway over the military at the expense of more conciliatory Macedonian politicians. "Our goal is to eliminate the terrorist presence in and around Aracinovo," says Defense Ministry spokesman Gjorgi Trendafilov.

Despite police reports to the contrary, local villagers say there are still civilians trapped by the fighting in Aracinovo. The NLA reported three civilians killed and 18 wounded on Friday, but the figures could not be independently confirmed.

The rebels held their positions in the village but did not go through with threats to shell the Skopje airport and oil refineries. One NLA commander said that his forces would not counterattack until June 27, when the rebels' self-imposed cease-fire ends.

The renewed fighting has shattered fragile peace talks within the multi-ethnic governing coalition. European Union foreign policy director Javier Solana returned to Skopje on Friday night to try to rescue a peace plan put forward by Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski last week.

He met with leaders of both political camps until midnight on Saturday and urged the Macedonian government to restrain the army for the sake of the negotiations. On Sunday morning, Mr. Georgievski said the offensive would continue, and Macedonian forces again fired on Aracinovo from helicopter gunships and tanks. Later, President Trajkovski and Mr. Solana agreed to a cease-fire in Aracinovo until 6 p.m. Sunday, but at 4:30 p.m., heavy bombardment could still be heard.

European officials hope to secure a preliminary agreement addressing the grievances of the Albanian minority in time for a meeting of European foreign ministers by Monday. Meanwhile, Emilija Geleva, strategic advisor to Prime Minister Georgievski, has warned: "If the international community forces an agreement which we don't really accept, it will only make the situation worse."

Ethnic-Albanian politicians say they will not resume talks until a cease-fire. "This assault shows that hard-liners have won the debate within the government," says Ismet Ramadani, a prominent ethnic-Albanian politician. "There is no possibility for dialogue now."

Ethnic-Albanian parties are demanding constitutional recognition of Albanians as a constituent nation in Macedonia and an amnesty for the NLA rebels. Both sides in the talks have refused to compromise.

"What we are seeing in Macedonia is a shift in power from the doves to the hawks within the Macedonian political structures," says Sam Vaknin, Balkans analyst for Central European Review and United Press International. "Even [President Boris] Trajkovski appears to have switched to the more militant camp."

The combatants appear to be only vaguely connected to the political process. The NLA is not allowed into the negotiations, and the Macedonian defense ministry's Mr. Trendafilov denies the existence of serious negotiations.

Recently, police were ordered to arm 13,000 Macedonian police and Army reservists, raising fears that Macedonian paramilitary formations could enter the fray. On the other side, 3,000 fighters are reported to be en route from NLA training camps in Albania. The conflict is now referred to as a civil war by both sides, and it is taking on wider connotations.

"If a religious conflict erupts in Macedonia between Christian Macedonians and Muslim Albanians, it could drag in Greece and Turkey and seriously destabilize NATO's southern flank," Vaknin says.

Until recently, religion has been low on the agenda in Macedonia, but there are signs that this is changing. Mr. Trendafilov says NLA fighters burned a church and Macedonian homes in the village of Matejce on Friday.

Late last week, police shot at a mosque tower and threw smoke bombs into ethnic-Albanian homes in the village of Strachince, a mile from Aracinovo. The entire population of the village fled, leaving livestock untethered and a multitude of disoriented doves.

A few hundred yards from Strachince, ethnic-Macedonian villagers in Stajkovic have been enlisted as police reservists and issued automatic rifles. "Our people are mobilizing because we are afraid that the Albanian terrorists will come to our village," says Sasha, a Macedonian villager who did not want his full name used. "There is a war because the Albanians don't believe in God. They believe in drugs and crime. We have to be armed and prepared to fight."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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