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Macedonia: Violence Resumes

  • Ron Synovitz

Hopes that yesterday's lull in fighting and an offer of a cease-fire by ethnic Albanian fighters might end the violence in Macedonia were dashed today. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz reports from Tetovo that clashes between the Albanian fighters and Macedonian security forces have resumed in and around Macedonia's second-largest city. Here is his account of the renewed violence.

Tetovo, Macedonia; 22 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The streets of Tetovo early this morning were full of residents stocking up on food from shops and street vendor stalls for the second day in a row. Earlier, seven days of shooting and shelling had closed most shops and all schools.

But hopes that a unilateral cease-fire declared by ethnic Albanian fighters last night would help avert a full-scale offensive by the Macedonian army were shattered in mid-morning. Shortly before 10 a.m., the army launched a heavy artillery barrage from Tetovo's soccer stadium toward Albanian positions in the mountains that tower over the city.

Almost immediately, the street vendors packed up their goods, shopkeepers locked their doors, and residents sought shelter.

At first, only a few scattered shots from rifles could be heard coming from the Albanian fighters in the hills above. Then, about two hours after the barrage began, two middle-aged Albanian men in a car with Tetovo number plates attempted to attack security forces at the stadium.

As their car came to a halt at an entrance of the stadium, one of the men tried to get out to throw a hand grenade. Police shot both men dead in a hail of gunfire captured by television cameramen. The grenade did not explode.

Violence resumed elsewhere as well. Albanian fighters fired mortar and heavy-machinegun rounds on Macedonian police forces near the village of Kuckovo close to the border with Kosovo this morning, wounding one Macedonian policeman. In and near the capital Skopje, police were fired upon yesterday and today, with one killed and at least one wounded.

The renewed violence followed a 24-hour lull in the fighting declared by the Macedonian security forces to allow civilians to leave the area. Last night, the Albanian fighters offered an unlimited cease-fire. Ali Ahmeti, a political spokesman for the Albanians' National Liberation Army, or UCK, made the offer in a statement broadcast on Kosovo public TV (RTK).

Ahmeti said: "We have said we continually reiterate our position that we are not for war but for dialogue. We do not want blood to be shed like a river because the reasons for sitting around a table will be meaningless then. [So] we, the UCK, proclaim a cease-fire and open the way to a dialogue, and let the best possible solution be found."

Ahmeti warned that if the Macedonian security forces threaten any UCK position, "then, unfortunately, developments will have far greater consequences."

Our correspondent in Tetovo says the offer was never communicated directly to officials in Skopje. A UCK commander near Tetovo, who goes by the name Commander Hoxha, told RFE/RL's Albanian Service last night he does not have a fax or telephone number that would enable him to contact Skopje officials. Instead, the fighters have been relying on reports by Western journalists to communicate their position to the government -- a method that has been rejected by Macedonia's Interior Ministry as "unofficial."

More important, the UCK's offer of a cease-fire fell short of meeting the conditions of the government's ultimatum. They included the surrender of all ethnic Albanian fighters in Macedonia and the withdrawal of non-native fighters to Kosovo.

Ahmeti told RFE/RL over the past weekend that 80 percent of the fighters are from Macedonia.

Only three hours before the deadline, Commander Hoxha told RFE/RL that he would respect the ultimatum, but first wanted direct negotiations with the government about the grievances of ethnic Albanians in Macedonia.

Hoxha described what could be expected if the fighting resumes.

"If the Macedonian forces move forward and launch an offensive, we will proclaim a mobilization. We are present near Tetovo, Skopje, and [the northeastern town of] Kumanov, and they are aware of this fact."

Earlier yesterday, government spokesman Antonio Milososki said Skopje would never negotiate with the Albanian fighters or extend the ultimatum's deadline.

"There is no possibility of extending the deadline. The terrorists have an opportunity until midnight tonight to either give up their weapons and surrender or, for those who are from Kosovo, to go back to Kosovo. They also have an opportunity to show their respect toward the people for whose rights they are allegedly fighting."

Skopje's insistence that there was no room for negotiations also has been supported by the European Union. On Tuesday, EU foreign policy and security chief Javier Solana told a news conference in Skopje he had advised the Macedonian government not to negotiate with the militants.

"I think it is a mistake to negotiate with terrorists in this particular case. It is a mistake to do it, and we do not recommend doing it."

Solana today returned to Skopje, where he said "the situation is getting better."

"I am coming now, as you know, I am coming from the Middle East, where I tried to do the same thing, trying until the guns and the violence go down. This is what we have to do. We are in the 21st century. We have to construct countries in peace and not in violence."

Further support for the Macedonian offensive came last night from the UN Security Council, which described the ethnic Albanian fighters as "terrorists" and condemned their use of violence.

Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski met with the leaders of all parties represented in parliament last night. Minutes before the 24-hour cease-fire was to end, he read out a statement calling for the "rapid and efficient neutralization of the armed group of extremists." The statement also condemned the Albanians' use of weapons to achieve political goals and said the Macedonian Army and KFOR must take complete control of the Macedonian-Kosovo border.

While ruling out discussions with the fighters, Trajkovski did hold out an olive branch of a possible dialogue once the fighting stops.

"After the conclusion of the operations to neutralize the armed groups of extremists, political dialogue should be intensified with all legitimate political parties to open up questions concerning interethnic relations and find responsible solutions."

Macedonia's political leadership appears intent on crushing the Albanian fighters at all costs. How realistic that goal is far from clear.

(RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele in Prague contributed to this report.)

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