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Macedonia: How Long Can The Cease-Fire Hold?

  • Jolyon Naegele

Ethnic Albanian fighters for the National Liberation Army said yesterday they would respect a temporary cease-fire declared by Macedonian authorities, but later explained they would respect the cease-fire for only one day. In fact, only nine hours after the cease-fire took effect at noon yesterday, Albanian fighters ambushed a police patrol near Tetovo, apparently outside of the area covered by the cease-fire. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele examines the likelihood of a continuation of the cease-fire.

Prague, 12 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Last night's attack by ethnic Albanian fighters on a police truck shook but did not break the nine-hour-old cease-fire declared by the government beginning noon yesterday.

That is largely because the Macedonian president's office, in announcing the cease-fire, referred to two specific problems in the Lipkovo/Kumanovo region northeast of Skopje. They were the National Liberation Army's (UCK) blockage of drinking water from reaching Kumanovo for the past week and Macedonian security forces' refusal to permit humanitarian aid to reach rebel-held villages in the area.

No mention was made in the terse cease-fire announcement of the Tetovo/Sar front, where fighting has been less intensive due to the mountainous terrain, although casualties among Macedonian servicemen have been higher than elsewhere.

Macedonian authorities have dismissed suggestions that they announced the cease-fire in response to an ultimatum by the UCK. The UCK had warned the government to stop the attacks on villages west of Kumanovo or face attacks on government buildings in Skopje, the international airport and a nearby oil refinery.

The UCK attacked the police truck with automatic weapons near the village of Odri, some 18 kilometers northeast of Tetovo on the main road from the Jazince border crossing with Kosovo. Nine policemen were injured, two of them seriously, in the attack.

A UCK commander who goes by the name Shpati, said his men were acting in self-defense when they attacked the truck. He told the Reuters news agency: "On our side, we will respect the cease-fire, but this doesn't mean we won't defend ourselves."

Yesterday, the UCK initially welcomed the cease-fire unconditionally, but later set a time limit on respecting it until 1400 local time today (Tuesday). Today, the UCK said it would continue to respect the cease-fire if Macedonian security forces held their fire to allow a relief convoy of some 30 trucks containing humanitarian aid into the conflict zone around Lipkovo.

But Macedonian authorities later refused to allow the convoy to reach rebel-held villages. After a seven-hour wait, Labor Minister Bedredin Ibrahimi said the government would not allow the convoy to pass because it was accompanied by journalists.

Most residents have fled the area since the fighting erupted there more than a month ago (May 3). But thousands of civilians remain in their cellars with no electricity and hardly any food or potable water. The municipal secretary of Lipkovo, Nexhati Osmani, told RFE/RL's Albanian unit today the situation was calm but remained "very, very, difficult."

"From the start of the fighting until now, no one has been able to bring help -- food or medicines. We expect a convoy [of humanitarian aid trucks] will arrive later today after being stopped at the police check-point yesterday. The people need the aid."

Presidential national security adviser Nikola Dimitrov has said the cease-fire would last as long as necessary for humanitarian operations to aid civilians in the conflict zone. But when pressed, he said the duration of the cease-fire would depend on the situation on the ground.

The Kumanovo area has been without drinking water ever since the UCK cut off supplies from the Lipkovo reservoir a week ago. OSCE officials today tried but failed to replenish Kumanovo's water supply.

The cease-fire was welcomed enthusiastically by Imer Imeri, the leader of one of the two main ethnic Albanian parties in Macedonia, the Party for Democratic Prosperity.

"It is the only positive move since the crisis began."

A UCK commander, who goes under the name of Hoxha, told the Kosovar Albanian daily "Bota Sot" that if security forces resume their offensive, "we will defend ourselves, or possibly carry out a counter-offensive." He said the UCK has formed a new brigade in the Skopje region and, as he put it, "the number of soldiers and volunteers is growing at breakneck speed in a matter of hours -- we have enough arms." And he warned that "if the Macedonian Government opts for war, then it will get enough of it, until it is fed up."

The UCK's acceptance of the cease-fire may also be due to another concern. By occupying the strategically important village of Aracinovo last Friday (June 8), and repeatedly threatening to shell government buildings in Skopje as well as the international airport and the country's sole oil refinery, the fighters may inadvertently provoke the international community to take action.

Skopje newspapers today quoted NATO's top civilian representative in Macedonia, Ambassador Hans Eiff, as saying that if the UCK shells the Skopje airport, where NATO-led peacekeepers have a base, KFOR will strike back.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher yesterday issued the sternest warning yet:

"With the occupation of Aracinovo, the extremists have escalated the conflict and pose a potential threat to NATO supply lines." Boucher said the United States welcomes the Macedonian government's cease-fire as, in his words, "another strong indication of the courageous restraint in the face of extremist provocations."

The Macedonian government today adopted President Boris Trajkovski's peace plan, which he had presented to the EU's foreign and security policy chief Javier Solana on Friday. At the same time, the commander of the Macedonian army, Jovan Andrevski, resigned his post, citing the low morale of his troops.

Trajkovski is due to discuss his peace plan Thursday and Friday (June 14-15) with the leaders of the major political parties in the broad coalition government in the southwestern town of Ohrid.

The president says the first phase of his plan has already begun -- a diplomatic-political offensive and the establishment of an army and police task force under a unified command. He says this would be followed by the military and political isolation of the UCK, the creation of conditions for a more permanent cease-fire and the introduction of confidence-building measures, including reconstruction of war-damaged homes.

The plan also calls for the UCK being disarmed by handing over its weapons either to the Macedonian security forces or to NATO-led forces such as KFOR, under OSCE and EU monitoring. Finally, Trajkovski says conditions would be created for normality and stability, and UCK fighters who have not committed criminal acts would be amnestied.

The Macedonian president insists that his plan excludes any changes to the political status of Macedonia, such as federalization. He rules out as well any border changes and the granting of autonomy to areas with majority-ethnic Albanian populations or the granting of special status to certain territories.

The EU and the United States have welcomed the plan. But in his interview with "Bota Sot," UCK commander Hoxha appeared unimpressed with the offer of a limited amnesty, suggesting it was insufficient. In his words: "I'm not from the moon -- I come from Skopje. I'm not even thinking about moving from here, no matter whether he offers me an amnesty or not."

The UCK has repeatedly said that it has no intention of laying down its arms until it achieves its main goals -- equal rights in all walks of life, constitutional changes making Albanians a constituent nation with the Macedonians, and the recognition of Albanian as an official language along with Macedonian. In the past, too, it has used cease-fires or lulls in the fighting to regroup or even attack. All this suggests the current cease-fire could easily disintegrate.