Noon today was the government's deadline for ethnic Albanian fighters to surrender or withdraw from Macedonia and for thousands of residents of ethnic Albanian villages northwest of Kumanovo to leave. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports from Kumanovo that a humanitarian catastrophe may be developing in the Albanian villages under siege by Macedonian security forces.
Kumanovo, 17 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In a televised address yesterday, Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski accused the ethnic Albanian fighters of "abusing the suffering of common people, and using their suffering as a propaganda weapon." He said that for members of the rebel National Liberation Army, or UCK, "each civilian casualty is a victory, a chance to ignite passions, divide the people, and lead the country to further conflict."
Trajkovski pledged that after the government's ultimatum for the UCK to withdraw expired at noon today, Macedonian security forces would operate under orders to "minimize the risk of civilian casualties." He noted, however, that "it is very difficult to use force efficiently and make efforts to avoid civilian casualties at the same time." He added that the UCK fighters must bear responsibility for any civilian casualties. He also appealed to civilians to leave the conflict area, saying they would be allowed to return to their homes "as soon as the [necessary] conditions are created."
A European Union delegation consisting of External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten, Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh, and Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel visited Skopje yesterday. The three officials urged restraint by Macedonian security forces in resolving the conflict with the UCK.
Husamedin Halili is the mayor of Macedonia's Lipkovo district, which includes 22 villages. Some of them are now engulfed in the fighting and most of them are inaccessible. Halili told our correspondent that nearly all (99.5 percent) of the district's 25,000 residents are ethnic Albanians. The remainder, he says, are Serbs and Macedonians.
Halili says what is needed now is not a renewed military offensive but a dialogue between the new, broad coalition government and the UCK, aimed at resolving the accumulated problems of Macedonia's ethnic Albanian population -- who make up between one-quarter and one-third of the country's two million inhabitants.
The mayor says shelling by tanks and helicopters cannot solve these problems. But he denies that he himself is conducting any sort of dialogue with the UCK because, he says, he lacks the sufficient authority and competence to do so. He insists he is not beholden to either side, and that it is up to the government to take the first step. "I think that unless this government responds to the situation within two weeks, the situation will spin out of control and this government will be doomed to fall."
Halili stresses that the political dialogue the new government is due to undertake with mainline ethnic Albanian political parties must not be allowed to drag on indefinitely. Rather, he says, a response must be forthcoming concerning specific changes to satisfy Albanian demands for equal rights. He says it is hardly surprising that Albanians have taken up arms because Albanian parties in parliament have failed to persuade the authorities of the need to grant Albanians full rights. "The UCK is here as the result of decades of endeavors by Albanian political parties that brought no results. The UCK is in the Lipkovo district to defend the fundamental rights of Albanians here. But as you know, the UCK has recognized the sovereignty of Macedonia."
Halili describes the situation in his district as "very bad and alarming." He says there has been no electricity, drinking water, or telephone service for two weeks. For all practical purposes, he says, the district has been totally isolated by the Macedonian army and police. As a result, he says, the basic nutritional and health needs of children, women, and the elderly are not being met.
"Practically speaking, three villages are barely standing anymore. These were very big villages with [a total of] 4,500 inhabitants. Slupcane has 600 houses -- 400 of them are totally destroyed, burned out. The same goes for the village of Vaksince, which has 500 houses."
Halili says the International Committee for the Red Cross has brought in only a small quantity of medical supplies to treat ailing residents, including those wounded by the shooting and shelling. But he says most supplies of humanitarian goods are not getting through, despite his appeals to the authorities in Skopje. He also says most children in the worst affected villages are suffering from diarrhea.
On Monday (May 14), Halili says, he visited Slupcane, the scene of some of the worst destruction. He says that the bloated carcasses of some 300 cows and horses killed in the fighting there are also contributing to the growing health hazard. The situation, the mayor says, is just as alarming in Orizare.
"The children, the elderly, and the women, and those citizens of this state who recognize the sovereignty of Macedonia, who recognize this state -- all they are demanding are real rights for Albanians. No one is asking for anything more than equality with the Macedonian people."
A spokeswoman for the International Committee for the Red Cross, Amanda Williamson, says that if the siege of the Lipkovo district villages continues, then "there will be a problem of starvation."
Despite appeals by President Trajkovski and other officials for civilians to leave their villages, fewer than 200 left the affected area for the Macedonian interior this week. But the UN says some 9,000 have fled the area to Kosovo in the past eight days.
Metija Zulfiu and her adult daughter Luljeta left their village of Lojane on Macedonia's northern border with Serbia on Monday, in a Red Cross convoy that brought them and more than 100 other villagers to Kumanovo. Luljeta insists that, in contrast to the nearby villages of Vakcince and Slupcane, there are no UCK fighters in Lojane, only civilians.
"The situation in the village of Lojane is very complicated. People are being killed or injured every day. The shelling continues without let-up, non-stop, from all sides. And groceries and other basic supplies are not reaching the people in the village."
Luljeta says her 63-year-old mother decided to leave for health reasons -- Metija Zulfi suffers from diabetes -- as well as because of a lack of food. Like some residents who chose to stay behind, Metija says she and her mother feared harassment and mistreatment by Macedonian security forces after they left their village. "They don't like us. They don't think much of us at all -- in fact, they think the worst of us."
But both Metija and Luljeta Zulfi say the residents who chose to leave with the Red Cross did not experience any mistreatment by Macedonian soldiers or police on their way out. Metija says she fears for the fate of her seven other daughters, who live with their families in Lojane, Vakcince, Slupcane, and Lipkovo. She says she has had no contact with them since the fighting started two weeks ago.