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UN: UNHCR Troubled By Signs Of Ethnic Expulsions In Macedonia

  • Robert McMahon

A special envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in the Balkans has expressed concern that ethnic Macedonians in the north of the country are being forced to flee their homes by ethnic Albanian rebels. The envoy says that if allowed to continue, such expulsions could lead to the same ethnic recriminations which have afflicted the rest of the former Yugoslavia during the past 10 years. RFE/RL's UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

United Nations, 25 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- At a time of mounting tensions in Macedonia, a special envoy for the United Nations refugee agency says he is troubled by the flight of Macedonians from ethnic Albanian areas in recent days.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees' Balkan envoy, Eric Morris, released a statement yesterday (24 July) saying his agency was increasingly concerned about the separation of ethnic populations in Macedonia.

Morris said he was particularly disturbed by the recent departure of ethnic Macedonians from the towns of Aracinovo, northeast of Skopje, and Lesok, north of Tetovo, after ethnic Albanian rebels moved in. The envoy recently visited both towns.

UN spokesman Fred Eckhard quoted Morris as saying that this flight was a troubling reminder of other ethnic groups forced to flee their homes during previous conflicts across the former Yugoslavia.

"[Morris] said, 'It was not my feeling that ethnic cleansing was the intent of the conflict, but if there's going to be a separation of the population, the consequences could be the same. It can spiral out of control. And if a community believes it was forcibly expelled, enormous barriers will be created for any eventual return.'"

Macedonia last weekend experienced its worst fighting in nearly four months when ethnic Albanian rebels and government forces engaged in heavy fighting in the Tetovo area. The fighting broke a cease-fire that was in place while Macedonian officials discussed a draft peace plan supported by the European Union and United States.

The Macedonian leadership rejected that plan, which included a requirement that Albanian be recognized as an official language in some areas. More talks could take place this week among Macedonian and ethnic Albanian political parties.

At the same time, United Nations officials say they fear that the longer it takes to reach a political solution, the more precarious will be the situation between the country's two main ethnic groups.

Morris, the UNHCR envoy, said in his statement that the refugee agency has urged both sides to avoid what he called "any purposeful displacement of populations." He said the more displacement that takes place, the more difficult it will be to co-exist in the future.

Earlier yesterday, UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond told reporters in Geneva that it is crucial for the nearly 100,000 people displaced by the fighting in Macedonia to return to their homes as quickly as possible.

"The continuing uncertainty surrounding the peace process in FYROM [the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia] makes any decision on return extremely difficult for the displaced, and we fear that the longer the uncertainty and displacement goes on the deeper the rift between the ethnic communities."

The UNHCR says about 60,000 refugees from Macedonia, most of them ethnic Albanians, remain in neighboring Kosovo, after fleeing months of battles near their homes. It says an additional 30,000 Macedonians have been internally displaced in their country.

Spokesman Redmond said another 15,000 refugees have returned to Macedonia from Kosovo, many during the recent 18-day lull in fighting, when political talks were underway. But he says many of the returnees are now staying in urban areas rather than the rural villages where their homes are.

"There have been, on average, more going back to Macedonia than leaving. Most of those going back have been going to the Skopje area, not to some of these affected villages in the hills."

UN officials did not provide figures on the number of ethnic Macedonians leaving their homes. But an estimated 200 Macedonians who had been forced from their homes demonstrated outside the parliament in Skopje yesterday, calling for more government protection.

Redmond said the UNHCR is working with the International Committee of the Red Cross on possible confidence-building measures to ease the way for all ethnic groups to eventually return to their villages. Separately, Redmond said, there have been steady returns of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo to southern Serbia's Presevo Valley. He said about 4,000 ethnic Albanians have returned to the area since 1 June, and that the UNHCR now runs two weekly return convoys to the area from Kosovo, where thousands had fled during and after the 1999 Kosovo conflict.