Skopje, 2 April 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Yugoslavia yesterday used the capture of three U.S. soldiers along its border with Macedonia to demand that Macedonia expel all 12,000 NATO troops from its territory.
The demand came after the capture Wednesday afternoon of the three U.S. soldiers. According to NATO's account, the soldiers were on a reconnaissance mission along the border north of the Macedonian city of Kumanovo when they radioed that they had come under fire from Yugoslav forces.
Serbia was quick to parade the three before its television cameras yesterday and to claim they were on Serbian soil when taken prisoner.
The Yugoslav ambassador to Macedonia, Zoran Janackovic, seized the opportunity to summon journalists to his embassy in Skopje to demand Macedonian condemnation of all NATO actions and the quick departure of NATO troops from the country.
The NATO soldiers came to Macedonia in order to be able to swiftly move into neighboring Kosovo as a peacekeeping force. Since NATO began air strikes on Yugoslavia last week, NATO officials in Skopje have reiterated daily that the soldiers have no offensive intent or capabilities and will not be used to invade Yugoslavia in a ground offensive.
Janackovic said Yugoslavia respects Macedonia's sovereign right to make alliances, but not when they threaten his country.
"We accept absolutely the right of Macedonia to have bilateral agreements with any partner they want, no matter if it is an international organization or military organization. But at the moment, this alliance, with its activities, begins to be a danger to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, or other neighbors of Macedonia, then we are forced to raise our voice against it."
In addition to demanding the departure of NATO troops, he called for an end to Macedonia's logistical support for NATO and demanded that Macedonia close its air space to NATO warplanes. Many Macedonians have been afraid that the presence of NATO troops could draw retaliation from Yugoslavia, an allegation the ambassador rejected. Holding up a Skopje newspaper map showing where a U.S. missile apparently was accidentally dropped on Macedonian territory earlier this week, he implied that the real threat to Macedonia comes from NATO, not from Yugoslavia.
As for the three U.S. soldiers, Janackovic said they will be treated as prisoners of war because war has been imposed on his country by NATO, so rules of war now prevail.
Janackovic told our correspondent there is no doubt that the U.S. soldiers were on Yugoslav territory when captured, but both NATO and Macedonia will only say that an investigation is underway to determine where they were captured.
What is known is that the three were traveling by jeep between the villages of Algunja and Nikuljana, a hilly area where the border is ill defined. In fact, since Macedonia peacefully broke away from Yugoslavia in 1991, the border has not been officially demarcated. Macedonian officials do not even call it a border but instead refer to it as an "administrative line."
From 1993 until last month, the border was patrolled on the Macedonian side by U.N. soldiers, who were often confronted by Serbian soldiers trying to move the agreed-upon line of division south into Macedonia.
There were at least three serious border incidents between Serbian forces and U.N. troops when Serbs forcibly occupied disputed strategic heights that gave them a broad view into Macedonian territory.
In the area where the U.S. soldiers were driving on Wednesday, the border runs up and down hills and cuts across roads. In addition, there are dozens of unmarked, unpaved roads used in recent years by smugglers breaking a U.N. embargo on Yugoslavia. A young Macedonian man familiar with the area where the U.S. soldiers ran into trouble says that "if you are not familiar with the terrain, you don't even know where is north and where is south. It is very confusing."
Macedonian Deputy Prime Minister Radmila Kiprjanova said yesterday that the U.S. soldiers should have known their way around because this is the same area they were patrolling as part of the U.N. mission that was just disbanded. The entire U.S. contingent of 350 soldiers in Macedonia was transferred to vaguely defined "force protection duties" with NATO only a few days ago.
But Macedonian Interior Minister Pavle Trajanov told a news conference yesterday afternoon that it is entirely possible the U.S. soldiers accidentally strayed into Yugoslav territory.
"They were lost between two distant Macedonian watch posts, and there are lots of roads crossing that area. It's quite possible they lost their way and entered Yugoslav territory."
Neither Trajanov nor NATO officials in Skopje would respond to allegations that Serbian soldiers actually crossed into Macedonia to snatch the U.S. soldiers.
With Macedonia already feeling very vulnerable to the upheavals in the region, observers in Skopje say the government will not make any allegations about any possible Yugoslav infringement of its sovereignty until it has all the facts.