NATO enters another volatile ethnic drama

Today, 400 British NATO troops head to Macedonia to begin rebel disarmament.

Two months ago a council of elders from the Albanian mountain village of Ljuboten, above the Macedonian capital, Skopje, gave a besa - a binding Albanian verbal oath - to their Macedonian neighbors in the village of Ljubanc: They would not attack. The Macedonian villagers vowed the same.

It was the kind of neighborly gesture that people here have hoped would distinguish Macedonia from Croatia and Bosnia, which were ripped apart by ethnic wars in 1991 and 1992.

But as NATO troops begin arriving today to facilitate the rebel disarmament, many people fear that Monday's tenuous peace agreement will falter under continued ethnic strife. With an estimated 125,000 people having fled their homes, success in the peace effort will largely be measured by their ability to return.

"To return to villages, people need power and water supplies repaired, and a guaranteed security," says a European diplomat.

If that process, combined with the NATO disarmament, proceeds fairly quickly and is given favorable publicity, it will generate positive momentum, he says. "Will they be able or allowed to return? If they say 'We don't feel safe,' then you've got a spontaneous separation."

An incident between the Albanians and Macedonians who made the besa shows how easily Macedonia's pact for ethnic coexistence could dissolve.

Last Friday, several Macedonian soldiers were killed near the two villages by landmines planted by Albanian extremists. Two were from the Macedonian village Ljubanc.

The next morning, Macedonian civilians and reservists entered the Albanian village, Ljuboten, seeking revenge. For two days, armed reservists blocked off the village. They beat up Macedonian journalists, detained foreign journalists, and pummeled an Albanian taxi driver.

On Tuesday, Shaban and Hafet Jashari, two young ethnic-Albanian brothers coming from Skopje, made it past the checkpoints to visit their family home. They climbed the cobble-stoned streets of Ljuboten, passed their dead cows, lying outside the smoldering barn, and their shelled house.

They raced up the hill, where they found their brother lying next to rows of drying tobacco, shot dead in the back at close range. Thirty-three yards up the hill, they found their cousin's body. And near the top lay the body of their brother Kadri. He'd been visiting from Austria, where he lived with his new wife.

The Macedonian government says the action was retaliation against rebel National Liberation Army (NLA) soldiers who they accused of firing from the village, and that the dead men were terrorists.

But a Macedonian with close connections to the Macedonian village Ljubanc says the reaction was much more personal. "The people from Ljubanc were so frustrated. They wanted blood. They would have burned the entire village and massacred everyone if the Army hadn't stopped them."

Even as NATO prepares its 3,500-strong disarmament mission in villages like Ljuboten, extremists are having their way, and many here fear that, as in Bosnia and Kosovo, NATO will simply emerge as overseer of Macedonia's de facto ethnic partition.

For one thing, the peace agreement is politically unpopular. "If there's peace VMRO loses everything," says a Macedonian analyst in Skopje, referring to the political party of Prime Minister Ljubco Georgevski. Since signing the peace agreement, Georgevski himself has publicly disavowed it, calling it a shameful peace.

It is generally assumed that if NATO establishes the stability here that could allow early elections to proceed, Georgevski and VMRO would be voted out of office.

"So he wants to play war and come on as the Tigers who saved the country from the bad Albanians, meanwhile taking profits from military provisions and the financial system," the Macedonian analyst adds.

The question now is whether NATO will be held hostage to the whims of a Prime Minister widely seen as deeply unstable, corrupt, and inexperienced, and to a tiny rogue group within the Albanian rebels who recently appeared on the scene taking credit for the ambush of the Macedonian soldiers near Ljubanc.

They call themselves the Albanian National Army and have labeled Ali Ahmeti, the political leader of the rebel NLA, a traitor to the Albanian cause.

"Until a few weeks ago, the NLA - though running an insurgency - was behaving very carefully toward civilians. But in the past three or four weeks, we've seen Albanian attacks on old people [and] harrassments [of people] in flats," observes the European diplomat.

And two days ago, a factory that employed a few hundred Macedonians just outside Tetovo - where the NLA is concentrated - was burned down. If there's no employment, the villagers won't return.

"It's obvious that the NLA are doing everything to prevent the return of Macedonians to villages northwest of the Tetovo/Kosovo road," says Saso Klekovski, executive director of the Macedonian Center for International Cooperation.

A few days after the incident in Ljuboten, Mr. Klekovski was unsure whether to risk sending a humanitarian convoy to the village. In the past, when he sent aid to Albanians, the Macedonian media vilified him as a terrorist collaborator, and his office windows were smashed.

When he called the Macedonians in Ljubanc to secure safe passage to the nearby Albanian village, "people told me 'Only dead can you go there.' "

Though Ljubanc and Ljuboten are just two small mountain villages, the trouble there spread immediately into the capital where about 120,000 Albanians live.

All the Albanian shops in the northwestern part of town were destroyed. Frustrated by the tameness of demonstrations outside the American Embassy, angry young Macedonian men tried to charge the bridges to the old, Albanian part of Skopje, but were held back by police.

On Sunday, Klekovski went to the green market where he always buys his produce from Albanian traders.

"There wasn't a single Albanian. And this is how it begins: They stay away two days. They come back, get harrassed, and then they'll leave," he says. "My neighbors ... say they won't buy from Albanians anymore because they don't want to finance the NLA."

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