Macedonia took a step toward anarchy last night when a crowd of several thousand protesters, led by soldiers and police reservists, stormed parliament and demanded the resignation of the president. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports that the protesters were angered by an accord that made possible the withdrawal of ethnic Albanian fighters from Aracinovo, a town near the capital Skopje.
Prague, 26 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Several thousand people, led by army and police reservists armed with machine guns, gathered in front of the parliament building in Skopje last night. They broke windows and furniture, and destroyed two police cars.
While most protesters remained outside, a relatively small number actually forced their way into the building. But by the time they went in, there was no one left with whom to talk.
President Boris Trajkovski had been in his office inside the parliament building conducting negotiations with leaders of the main Macedonian and Albanian political parties. When the protest began, he and the other politicians left by a rear exit.
Macedonian Deputy Prime Minister Xhevdet Nasufi, an ethnic Albanian, told RFE/RL's Albanian Unit today that the talks offered little hope of breaking the deadlock between the Albanian and Macedonian parties.
"Unfortunately, after this last meeting, you cannot see any concrete or clear readiness on the Macedonian side to make a move forward on reform within the political system which would result in advancing the status of Albanians in Macedonia."
Outside the parliament last night, some protesters demanded Trajkovski's dismissal, while others chanted "Give us Weapons," "Traitors," and various anti-ethnic-Albanian slogans.
The storming of parliament appears to represent a mutiny by nationalist elements in the police and army. They are frustrated with what they perceive as repeated attempts by Trajkovski to temper the desire of Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski's government to resolve the four-month-old Albanian rebellion by brute force.
At one point, a reservist came out of the parliament building to declare, through a megaphone, that the crowd does not recognize the authorities as their legal representatives. The reservists responded with several bursts of gunfire from their Kalashnikovs.
The protesters hauled down the current flag of Macedonia. In its stead, they hoisted the defunct 16-pointed star of Vergina flag that Macedonia, under pressure from Georgievski's nationalist party nearly a decade ago, adopted as its first official flag. Macedonia subsequently gave up the star flag under pressure from Greece, which claimed the star of Vergina as an exclusively Greek symbol.
The crowd beat up several British journalists. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who had been due in Skopje today, cancelled his trip this morning.
The protesters were angered by a deal that enabled Albanian insurgents, who since 8 June had been occupying Aracinovo -- a mainly Albanian hillside village, 10 kilometers northeast of Skopje -- to withdraw with their weapons.
The only politician who addressed the crowd was Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski. He said that NATO had kept Macedonia from defeating the rebels. State-owned Radio Macedonia says Boskovski's attempt to address the crowd "actually triggered their revolt," and that the protesters overturned his car in front of the main entrance.
But in a later broadcast from in front of the parliament building, Radio Macedonia corrected itself. Its reporter on the scene said, "This is not a crowd but rather a group of citizens and the situation is still under control." Then he added: "The people are entering the assembly building, they are not storming the assembly. They are taking out all kinds of souvenirs, but this can in no way be described as a rampage."
Boskovski later met with reporters and blamed the incident on the Albanian rebels, whom he called "terrorists." He said: "Not a single terrorist can remain on Macedonian soil. They will not only be driven out, but also destroyed."
Boskovski said the evacuation of Aracinovo was arranged "under pressure from the [international community after] every other house waved a white flag." Saying he was speaking on behalf of the government, the interior minister declared there can be no cease-fire with the "terrorists." He called on President Trajkovski "to make an effort to restore political dialogue and peace."
The European Union and NATO arranged a convoy of buses to ferry some 350 rebels of the National Liberation Army -- or UCK --- and about 200 civilians out of Aracinovo. They also supplied several trucks to transport UCK weapons, apparently to another rebel stronghold further to the north.
A KFOR spokesman in Skopje, Major Barry Johnson, says that after one Macedonian bus company backed out of a deal to supply busses for the evacuation, the U.S. KFOR contingent in Macedonia provided 15 buses, three trucks, three ambulances, and 16 Humvee overland jeep-like vehicles.
At least some of the ethnic Albanian fighters were taken some 10 km north to Nikustak, a small village that has been a rebel outpost in recent weeks. The convoy was divided into three groups, and news reports say none of them reached their destination. Lipkovo, west of Kumanovo, was one destination.
It is not clear whether some of the evacuees were bound for Kosovo. UNHCR said today that more than 65,000 Albanians from Macedonia have now sought refuge in Kosovo, in addition to 6,000 who have fled to Serbia and 30,000 who are displaced within Macedonia.
Macedonian residents of three villages near Aracinovo today manned roadblocks in an effort to halt the evacuation of any of the UCK rebels. The strategically placed civilian roadblocks appear not to be spontaneous, bearing the hallmarks of similar civilian roadblocks in Bosnia during and after the three-and-a-half-year war there.
The UCK-held village of Nikustak was under heavy fire today from Macedonian security forces. The government press agency MIA says Macedonian security forces initiated "fierce operations [this morning in an effort to] locate and break the terrorist groups and nests in Nikustak."
Macedonian TV says government security forces yesterday opened fire on a rented car about one kilometer from Nikustak, allegedly because the driver did not obey their order to stop. Four people with diplomatic passports were in the car and one of the persons was injured during the attack. The wounded diplomat was a U.S. citizen.
Shooting also continued overnight in and around Aracinovo, suggesting that not all the rebels have left the village. The government news agency MIA says the UCK fired on Macedonian security force positions from several areas.
A UCK commander, Drin Korabi, told the German news agency dpa by telephone, "Monday's events showed that Macedonians and the Macedonian government want a civil war with the Albanians." Korabi said that UCK fighters will enter Skopje, Kumanovo, and other towns as well, if the Macedonian authorities "continue avoiding dialogue with Albanians."
At the same time, heavy fighting continued yesterday and today on the outskirts of Tetovo, with each side blaming the other. The private news agency Makfaks reports one policeman was killed and five were wounded in a nighttime attack by UCK rebels on a security base at a former ski resort on Popova Sapka mountain, up a winding 20 km road from Tetovo.
Interior Ministry spokesman Stevo Pendarovski blames the UCK for a broad frontal attack on Macedonian security outposts.
"We know that there have been simultaneous attacks against all the [Macedonian] checkpoints."
But UCK commander Iliri says the Macedonian security forces have been firing at the Albanian-inhabited village of Sipkovica and targets deeper in the Sar mountain range west of Tetovo.
"At this moment, the village is being shelled from the town [Tetovo] and from the kale [old Turkish hilltop fortress]. They are shelling a village with a civilian population. The situation is under control and we have not attacked their checkpoints. But the Macedonian forces are shelling Sipkovica with mortars."
In Luxembourg yesterday, after talks between EU foreign ministers and Macedonian Foreign Minister Ilinka Mitreva, EU Commissioner Chris Patten said that although the EU has given Macedonia over $90 million this year, an additional $67 million will not be forthcoming as long as the fighting continues.
Patten said: "It is difficult to build people's confidence when money, which is clearly in very short supply, is being spent on bombs and rockets. The sooner there can be a cease-fire, permanently, and the sooner there can be a political settlement, the sooner we can discuss investing."
The EU foreign ministers issued a statement saying "there is no military solution to the present crisis." They called for a resumption of political dialogue.