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Macedonia: Violence Returns To Bitola

  • Jolyon Naegele

Civil violence returned to the streets of Macedonia's second-largest city, Bitola, last night after three local police reservists were among five security officers killed in an ambush by ethnic Albanian fighters near Tetovo.

Prague, 7 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Last night's rioting in Bitola, Macedonia's second-largest city, destroyed more than 50 shops and 20 family homes belonging to ethnic Albanians and Macedonian Muslims (Torbesh).

Interior Ministry spokesman Stevo Pendarovski says some 3,000 people joined in the riot, breaking up into five or six groups and plundering properties in various parts of the city.

"Yesterday after 20:00 crowds gathered in the old bazaar of Bitola. They revolted over the killings of [five] soldiers in the Sar Mountains."

The mob rioted for more than four hours, well after local authorities declared a nighttime curfew (2200 to 0500). Pendarovski says 14 people were injured, four of them by gunshot wounds. He says police arrested five local residents on suspicion of causing the gunshot injuries.

The rioters also burned down a mosque in a Bitola suburb and smashed gravestones. Some chanted "Bitola is burning" and "we're going to Skopje to burn down the government and parliament," before police restored order at 0130 (local and Prague time) this morning.

Rioters burned the home of the country's ethnic Albanian deputy health minister, Muarem Nexhipi, to the ground, as well as his brother's house next door. The Skopje daily "Dnevnik" says Nexhipi has not been seen in Bitola for 10 days and that the house had been empty since midday yesterday, with its gate wide open. The paper says Nexhipi's family had apparently fled the city.

Qenan Hasani, an ethnic Albanian resident, works as a reporter in Bitola for Macedonian state television and witnessed last night's riots. He says nothing is left of the deputy minister's homes except for the walls.

"All of this happened in the presence of Macedonian police who were just spectators."

In addition, there was also unrest last night in Resen (35 kilometers west of Bitola), where spokesman Pendarovski says five properties were destroyed. He says attackers threw a Molotov cocktail at the mosque but that speedy action by local residents in putting out the fire prevented serious damage to the building.

Government authorities say 13 people were injured in the rioting, three of them from bullet wounds. Police arrested five local residents on suspicion of causing the gunshot injuries.

The rioting erupted in the wake of news reports that three of five security officers killed in an ambush by Albanian guerillas near Tetovo Tuesday evening were from Bitola. The three were due to be buried in Bitola later today, following a memorial ceremony at the city council, which has declared today a day of mourning.

Last night's destruction followed a demonstration organized by the brother of one of the dead reservists, who led a column of taxi drivers waving anti-Albanian placards.

Many of the commercial properties destroyed had already been severely damaged in anti-ethnic Albanian riots in Bitola five weeks ago (May 1). In the early hours of May 1 and again late the same day, rioters torched over 50 Albanian-owned businesses and scrawled "Death to Albanians" on some of their facades.

That riot was triggered by an ambush three days before near Tetovo of a Macedonian security force patrol which left eight dead, including four reservists from villages near Bitola. It is still under official investigation, and police have so far only briefly detained four of about 50 rioters. There is some doubt whether the violence was spontaneous or organized.

In another incident yesterday, this one in the capital Skopje, fire was directed at the parliament building from a passing car while President Boris Trajkovski was conferring inside with Social Democratic Party chairman Branko Crvenkovski. Skopje Police later found the car, which was registered to a company in Bulgaria. They say they have detained two suspects whom they have only identified by their initials, DN and AP.

The Macedonian parliament is due to hold an emergency session tomorrow to discuss the security situation. Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski yesterday called on parliament to declare a state of war. But the European Union and the United States immediately warned against such a move, saying it could further aggravate the situation.

In a statement yesterday, the EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, condemned the latest violence but urged the government not to declare a state of war. Solana said that a declaration of war "would only be playing into the hands of extremists and would not help in resolving the present crisis."

The two Albanian parties in the Macedonian parliament greeted Georgievski's proposal with derision. A spokesman for the Democratic Party of Albanians, Zamir Dika, told the independent Albanian-language daily "Fakti" that Georgievski's proposal was irrational. "Declaring a state of war would simply mean a call for a civil war with unpredictable consequences for Macedonia," he said.

Similarly, the spokesman for the Party for Democratic Prosperity, Zahir Bekteshi, told "Fakti" there was no point in declaring a state of war since "it would only cause matters to deteriorate further and would lead Macedonia into dark waters with very difficult consequences."

The EU's Solana is due in Skopje tomorrow in a renewed bid to promote dialogue between Albanian and Macedonian political leaders. After his last visit, Georgievski announced the possibility of constitutional changes enabling equal rights for Albanians. But a few days later, the premier insisted he had only been ironic and had not meant to suggest he really favored granting the Albanians equal status with the Macedonians as a "state-forming nation."

At the same time, after discussions yesterday, Macedonia's ministers of defense and interior, Vlado Buckovski and Ljube Boskovski, announced they had overcome their political misunderstandings and would henceforth act in concert to implement a new strategy in dealing with the ethnic Albanian fighters. They said they will no longer "wait for provocations by the terrorists," as they put it, but rather will attack as soon as the fighters are sighted by security forces.