The gunfire and shelling on the outskirts of Tetovo this week signaled a shift in the confrontation between ethnic Albanian fighters and Macedonian security forces. What began in a remote mountain hamlet along the northern border with Kosovo has now reached the country's second largest city, located in the heart of mainly Albanian western Macedonia. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports from Tetovo that the latest fighting raises the specter of civil war in the only former Yugoslav republic to have gained independence without firing a shot.
Tetovo, Macedonia, 16 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Last week, the insurgency appeared to be a village rebellion by some 200 frustrated and angry ethnic Albanian peasants and largely local veterans of the disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army. It has since spread from the village of Tanusevci in the Black Mountains in northernmost Macedonia southwest some 60 kilometers to the outskirts of Tetovo, a city of some 60,000 inhabitants.
Our correspondent says the insurgency now poses a threat not only to Macedonia's territorial integrity but also to its internal stability. He says that, having reached Tetovo, the fighting could spread rapidly from the surrounding Polog district villages southward to other traditional interethnic trouble spots in the region: Gostivar, Debar, and beyond to the villages of the Reka district, as well as eastward to the capital Skopje and, further east, to the town of Kumanovo.
Macedonian police spokesman Stevo Pendarovski said today that there was overnight shooting just outside Kicevo, about 120 kilometers southwest of Skopje. He also said a police station was targeted in the village of Zajas, near the border with Albania.
Fighters of the National Liberation Army, or UCK, are not seeking secession of ethnic Albanian areas from Macedonia. Rather, they are demanding the end of what they say is discrimination in all walks of life by changing the Albanians' status from that of a minority to that of a constituent -- that is state-forming -- nation together with the Macedonians.
One of the two major Albanian political parties, the Democratic Party of Albanians, is a junior coalition partner in the Macedonian government. The current government supports the private Albanian-language university in Tetovo.
Ethnic Albanians are estimated to make up from one-quarter to one-third of Macedonia's overall population of some two million.
Until now, Macedonian authorities have sought to portray the UCK fighters as a largely alien group of terrorists from Kosovo. That argument, our correspondent says, is likely to become less convincing with the fighting having shifted to Tetovo.
The insurgency has evoked no sympathy in the international community. Many nations, including Albania, have condemned the violence and reaffirmed support for Macedonia's sovereignty and territorial integrity.
So has NATO. Today, on a visit to Greece, the alliance's secretary-general, George Robertson, again denounced ethnic Albanian violence. He said NATO has no plans to intervene, but praised recent Greek aid to Macedonia, noting that other NATO members, acting individually, will want to do the same.
The recent fighting has also raised questions about the ability of the Macedonian army and police to suppress the insurgents.
A European Union military monitor who witnessed the deployment of Macedonian security forces last week around Tanusevci said that a large majority of the police and soldiers were inadequately trained and, "barely able to hold a rifle, let alone shoot it." The only soldiers the monitor considered adequately prepared were members of three, small elite special forces units -- all of whom are ethnic Macedonians.
Tetovo is a university and market city famed for its bazaar, its centuries-old "painted mosque," and its backdrop of the snow-covered Shar mountain range that forms the border with Kosovo's Gora region and Albania. It is also the political center of the Albanian community in Macedonia. The two main Albanian parties are based in Tetovo, the Democratic Party of Albanians and the opposition Party for Democratic Prosperity.
On Tuesday (Mar 13), the head of the Democratic Party of Albanians, Arben Xhaferi, led a peaceful protest march of thousands of Albanians through the center of Skopje. The following day, Albanians in Tetovo held their own demonstration in the city's main square. In contrast to the Skopje march -- which witnesses say was orderly and included young people, professionals, and older people -- the Tetovo protest was composed largely of young people who were loud in their dissatisfaction with Xhaferi and his politics of moderation.
The protestors' chants were suddenly punctuated by gunfire and the explosions of mortar shells from the fortress hill just to the west of city. The demonstrators greeted the gunfire with chants of "UCK" and, witnesses said, beat up several Macedonian journalists. Many residents of the western part of Tetovo began to flee.
The gunfire continued until nightfall on Wednesday and resumed at dawn yesterday (Thursday). It went on sporadically throughout the day, with heavy mortar shells exploding on the fortress hill until mid-afternoon, setting brush afire for hours.
All schools and most shops in Tetovo remained closed yesterday. An egg store in the Kotluk quarter opened for business. But as the shelling mounted in intensity in the early afternoon, the owner first took inside the biggest eggs, then the smaller and cheaper eggs, before finally boarding up the shop.
A Macedonian man muttered angrily at a group of foreign journalists pressed up against the facade of a nearby house to avoid stray fire and snipers. Another Macedonian resident of Kotluk's ethnically mixed neighborhood agreed to talk on condition of anonymity.
"I wouldn't wish this on anyone. The people are frightened. All the shops are closed. I don't know what's going to happen. The next day will show. You can see for yourselves."
But the man said it was not clear who was directing the shooting and how many UCK fighters were involved. In his words, "we don't have any information."
Police were only occasionally in sight yesterday. Also, in contrast to Wednesday -- when at least one person was killed and 13 were wounded -- there were no ambulances in evidence. But Kotluk's residents continued to flee. Every minute or two a family -- Albanian, Romany or Macedonian -- left the neighborhood, by car, taxi or on foot. One women in a small car held her hands over her ears as the mortar shells exploded a few hundred meters away.
At one very old mosque near the fighting, a muezzin called the faithful to prayer amid the rattle of machine-gun fire. But nobody came. At the same time, at a mosque in the Albanian Murad Bafsharri neighborhood, some 100 mourners gathered for the funeral of a man said to have been killed by a sniper the day before.
After the mourners dispersed, a young man, Jell Masadik, told our correspondent, he thinks the fighters in the hilltop fortress are from Tetovo rather than the Tanusevci area and that their goal is to take the whole city.
"There are a lot of UCK people in the mountains -- in the Shar [mountains]. I think 200 and something. They are shooting with bombs, torpedoes, anything."
Masadik said the shooting had surprised Tetovo's Albanians and Macedonians alike. He said he doubted the UCK has the support of the local Albanian population for the moment, although he added that many Albanian residents were beginning to side with the fighters. Masadik said only a UCK victory would save Albanian residents from reprisals by their Macedonian neighbors.
In turn, Macedonian residents of a neighborhood at the foot of the fortress on Wednesday formed a self-defense force to protect their homes.
A German reporter who yesterday climbed up to the hilltop fortress or "kale" overlooking Tetovo, where the Albanian fighters are holding out, says their mood is victorious. Franz-Josef Hutsch, a former German army officer who now writes for the "Hamburger Abendblatt," says some 100 fighters control the fortress, about half of them are from the UCK that has been fighting north of Skopje. He says the other half consists of young local men, including high school and university students, from a previously unknown group, the Tetovo Liberation Army, or UCT.
Hutsch says at least some of the fighters have been in the fortress area for several weeks, but had not been fully prepared for the start of fighting when Wednesday's protest march offered an opportunity to be heard. Hutsch says the fighters are well stocked with weapons and ammunition, but are too few in number to take Tetovo.
After dark yesterday, a Macedonian army convoy was seen towing at least 10 cannons, believed to be 125-mm howitzers, toward Tetovo in what is likely to be an attempt to dislodge the rebels from the fortress.
Tetovo has repeatedly been the focus of interethnic controversy in the last 15 years. Macedonian communist authorities in the late 1980s ordered residents to reduce the height of their garden walls to less than one meter, a measure directed against the Muslim Albanian population. The Albanians traditionally built high garden walls to protect their women from the prying eyes of passers-by. The Macedonian communist authorities said they suspected political and terrorist activities might be going on behind those walls.
Then, in the wake of independence in 1992, Albanians in Macedonia founded a university in Tetovo, which the authorities repeatedly tried to shut down. Nevertheless, the university still exists, with a new campus and teaching staff that includes a former government minister.