The exchange of fire between Macedonian security forces and ethnic Albanian insurgents on the border between Macedonia and Kosovo yesterday was only the latest in a string of incidents in the area. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports on the tensions on Macedonia's northern frontier.
Prague, 27 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Ethnic Albanian refugees continue to stream across the mountainous border from Macedonia into Kosovo following the latest clashes. The overwhelming majority of them are coming from the ethnic Albanian mountain village of Tanusevci in northern Macedonia.
Michael Lamb, a UN High Commissioner for Refugees -- or UNHCR -- official on Kosovo's border with Macedonia, says the number of Albanians from Macedonia who have fled to Kosovo has more than doubled in the last four days.
"The total figure that we have right now is more than 415 this morning. Well, most of them are women and children who are over here."
The number of refugees far exceeds the Macedonian Interior Ministry's estimate of Tanusevci's population of 300 men, women, and children, indicating that residents of other mountain villages are also fleeing the shooting.
Tanusevci resident Muhabi Arifi and eight family members fled last night to the relative safety of Kosovo.
"There was shooting for three hours without let-up yesterday evening. The shooting started suddenly and came from the Macedonians. We didn't know where to go. The village is surrounded by Macedonian special forces and some reservists."
A U.S. officer with the NATO-led Kosovo peacekeeping force KFOR, Captain Michael Evans, says reports of weapons fire last night led KFOR to increase its presence today in the village of Debelde, just across the border from Tanusevci.
A spokeswoman for the UNHCR, Astrid van Genderen-Stort, said yesterday in Pristina that Tanusevci residents have been fleeing to Kosovo ever since the killing by Macedonian forces more than two weeks ago of a young Albanian man.
"But also they're afraid because tensions are rising in the area. Macedonian forces are increasing and apparently there has been shooting toward the village of Tanusevci."
But Macedonian Defense Ministry spokesman Georgi Trendafilov tells RFE/RL he finds the whole matter of refugees from Tanusevci suspect.
"It's absurd, We could classify it as a scenario for a provocation to create a situation that's quite unreal -- to give the impression that in the Republic of Macedonia some citizens are fleeing as a result of not being treated equally by other citizens -- that's out of the question."
Trendafilov says the Macedonian army and police are trying to ensure that border security is strictly respected. He insists that Macedonian troops have not occupied a single village anywhere in Macedonia's border zone, including Tanusevci. In fact, news reports say the police have not entered Tanusevci for at least six weeks.
Tanusevci is perched high up in a very sparsely populated area of the Skopje Black Mountains (Skopska Crna Gora), which has peaks of over 1,600 meters and stretches along Macedonia's border with Kosovo and into southern Serbia. The village is 24 kilometers from Skopje and four kilometers from the border with Kosovo.
A senior Macedonian Interior Ministry official told RFE/RL that Tanusevci was calm today. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says the trouble started in Tanusevci last September when insurgents fired rockets at Macedonian army vehicles. Then about two months ago armed men in uniforms of the defunct Kosovo Liberation Army, or UCK, turned up in Tanusevci within sight of the Macedonian army and police patrols.
The Macedonian Interior Ministry official says that "a new faction" of the former UCK is involved, a group that calls itself the National Liberation Movement. He says this new faction consists partly of "dozens of people" from Tanusevci and partly of Kosovar Albanian residents of Debelde, a village across the border in Kosovo. He also says the shooting around Tanusevci is closely connected with gun-running to ethnic Albanian insurgents in the Presevo Valley of southern Serbia, less than 20 kilometers to the east.
Tanusevci is the native village of a former UCK commander, Xhavit Hasani. Last year, the Macedonian news media reported that Hasani had cleared Tanusevci of many of its residents during the fighting in Kosovo in 1998 and 1999 so that the village could serve as a logistical base and refuge for UCK insurgents.
The Macedonian army subsequently discovered some 1,200 refugees from Kosovo had found refuge in Tanusevci during the NATO air strikes. KFOR detained Hasani last March on a Macedonian warrant and extradited him to Skopje where he was wanted on murder and weapons-smuggling charges. But Hasani paid $100,000 bail and was released and returned to Kosovo the following month, resettling in Viti, some 10 kilometers northwest of Tanusevci.
There has been no independent confirmation that Hasani is directly connected with the latest clashes around the village.
The senior Interior Ministry official says there have not been enough Macedonian soldiers and police in the area. In his words, "we need a lot of people to prevent the penetration of wildness into Macedonia and one of the best penetrating points is the village of Tanusevci."
But the official adds he is not sure that sufficient support exists at the political level in the Macedonian government to deploy more security forces. He says: "We will prepare to do that but nothing [no deployment] without prior political authorization."
Macedonian Defense Ministry spokesman Trendafilov says KFOR must do more to secure the border.
"It's a matter of some 10 days since the first shooting which occurred on 16 February and, according to the Ministry of Defense and the Security Council of the Republic of Macedonia, necessary measures were taken to secure the border. And at present we are insisting that KFOR impose a normal, efficient border regime."
Yesterday's exchange of fire came only hours after insurgents seized a Macedonian television reporter and her two-man camera team who had gone to investigate reports of rebel infiltration from Kosovo. The insurgents briefly held the team at gunpoint, and confiscated their TV camera and mobile telephones before telling them to leave and never come back.
Last Wednesday (21 February), the Macedonian Defense Ministry said that some 200 armed men had crossed from Kosovo into Macedonia near Tanusevci. A KFOR spokesman in Pristina responded that peacekeepers had not seen any armed group crossing into Macedonia.
The following day, the KFOR commander, Italian General Carlo Cabigiosu, visited Skopje for talks with Macedonian leaders. He pledged to step up patrols along the border and to improve contacts with the Macedonian army.
British KFOR spokesman Richard Hatter confirms cooperation with the Macedonian army will be improved.
"We'll look for coordinated operations as authorized in our current mandate."
At a summit of Southeast European leaders in Skopje last week, the presidents of Macedonia and Yugoslavia signed an agreement defining their common border, including the border between Macedonia and Kosovo. Ethnic Albanian leaders in Kosovo responded that they do not recognize elements of the treaty concerning Kosovo's border because, they say, Kosovo's future status remains open.