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Macedonia: 'Between A Rock And A Hard Place'

  • Jolyon Naegele

The ethnic Albanian community in Tetovo today buried the bodies of a father and his adult son who were shot dead by Macedonian security forces yesterday as they apparently tried to throw grenades. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports that Macedonia's coalition government and many of the country's two million inhabitants are in a no-win situation, that is -- as the English-language expression has it -- "between a rock and a hard place."

Prague, 23 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- A Muslim imam intoned a prayer in Tetovo this afternoon at the funeral of two men, Rasim Koraci and his adult son Ramadan, whom Macedonian security forces shot to death in a hail of machine-gun fire yesterday at a police checkpoint near the center of town.

One of the men appeared to be trying to throw a grenade at the police but no explosion occurred. The Skopje independent Albanian-language daily "Fakti" cites eyewitnesses who said the two were shot after one of them waived his wallet following verbal abuse by police.

Tetovo's ethnic Albanian Mayor Murteza Ismaili says "this murder has brought my city to the brink of civil war." The city's police chief Rauf Ramadani, also an Albanian, has expressed doubt that the men had grenades.

"The two citizens were simply driving into town."

But a high official (state security secretary) of the Macedonian Interior Ministry, Ljube Boskovski, says the police found three hand grenades when they searched the Koracis' bodies. Macedonian government spokesman Antonio Milososki told reporters he does not consider the incident an attack on civilians. In his words, "the security forces are fulfilling their duties with a clear conscience and it is not true that there was any shooting of civilians."

The incident is only one instance -- although a strong one -- of how the rapidly expanding conflict in northwestern Macedonia has put the government in Skopje, as well as the population at large, in an unenviable position.

The government has no choice but to fight. But the army and police lack adequate training, skills, and equipment to ensure a speedy defeat of the ethnic Albanian fighters.

Western analysts estimate Macedonia has 7,500 policemen and between 11,000 and 16,000 men in its armed forces. They includes 700 air force servicemen and 400 sailors who mainly patrol the country's two large southwestern lakes, Ohrid and Prespa. The military can also rely on about 60,000 reservists.

Macedonia's army is equipped with some 100 old T-34 and T-55 tanks and about 100 armored personnel carriers, several MiG 17 helicopters, a few single-motor Czech and Yugoslav aircraft, and several SAM rockets and rocket launchers. This month, Bulgaria donated what was described as "several hundred tons of munitions and military hardware," while Greece has donated five military trucks, radios, medical supplies, and bullet-proof vests. Ukraine this week, by prior agreement, delivered four Mi-8 troop transport helicopters after decommissioning them from peacekeeping use in Kosovo.

The Macedonian government spent some $77 million on defense last year.

Western military experts have expressed concern over the ability of the country's security forces to deal with lightly armed, flexible insurgents in extraordinarily difficult terrain without causing considerable material damage and civilian casualties.

The insurgents say they already number 2,000 fighters around Tetovo and some 6,000 in the country as a whole. They control the high ground in the Sar mountain range that towers over Tetovo to the west and north, with some peaks reaching over 2,600 meters.

The Albanian fighters also control much of the northern rim of the Skopje Black Mountains (Skopska Crna Gora/Karadag), northeast of the capital along the border with Kosovo. They are now moving into an area between the two ranges northwest of Skopje, where they have been clashing with security forces since 21 March around the villages of Kuckovo, Gracani, and Caska.

Fighting overnight (22-23 March) appears to have resulted in a withdrawal of Macedonian forces from the ethnic Albanian border village of Gracani, about 15 kilometers northwest of Skopje. Our correspondent (Askold Krushelnycky) visited the Macedonian army lines some 800 meters south of Gracani today. He says additional Macedonian forces are mustering just to the south at Kuckovo.

Reporters who have visited insurgent positions near Tetovo say the fighters have considerable stocks of aging arms -- mainly Kalashnikov rifles and ammunition. This would suggest that most of the arms originated in Albania and were smuggled into Macedonia after crowds stormed Albanian weapons depots during a wave of anarchy four years ago.

The Albanian fighters appear to know the terrain intimately. They say that 80 percent of their members are natives of Macedonia. But Defense Ministry spokesman Gjorgi Trendafilov insists that 60 to 70 percent of the fighters are from Kosovo.

An insurgent commander who calls himself "Sokoli" denied the fighters are terrorists in an interview last night with RFE/RL's Albanian-language unit.

"We are fighting against government forces. There is no civil war or inter-ethnic war. This is the reason that we are in the mountains -- the Macedonian government with its heavy artillery is destroying schools and villages. Until now we have not caused any damage. We are only fighting to defend ourselves. If there is any just policy, it would be good to see who are behaving like terrorists and who are defending their [people's] rights."

Sokoli did not acknowledge that it was Albanian fighters who started shooting around Tetovo nine days ago (14 March). Nor did he explain why during the preceding 10 days the insurgents had killed four Macedonian policemen in three separate incidents in the mountains northeast of Skopje.

The Albanian fighters justify their resort to violence by citing 10 years of alleged Macedonian discriminatory practices. But their insurgency increasingly appears to be an attempt to provoke Macedonian security forces to launch a disproportionately violent response against the Albanian civilian population. That, in turn, would further inflame anti-Macedonian feelings among Albanians in Macedonia and abroad.

(RFE/RL's Ron Synovitz and Askold Krushelnycky contributed to this feature)

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