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2001 In Review: NATO 'Dodges A Bullet' In Macedonia, Southern Serbia

  • Jolyon Naegele

The year 2001 saw the return of ethnic violence to the Balkans -- this time in Macedonia and the Presevo Valley of southern Serbia. Ethnic Albanian rebels started an insurgency in January that threatened to engulf the entire area in a war. But by year's end the situation appeared to stabilize, following concerted action by NATO and the international community. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele looks back on a year in which disaster was narrowly averted.

Prague, 14 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In the dead of winter, at two in the morning last 22 January, three assailants armed with a Chinese-made rocket launcher and two Kalashnikov machine guns attacked a Macedonian police station at Tearce, near Tetovo in northwestern Macedonia. They killed one policeman and injured two others.

A previously unknown group calling itself the National Liberation Army, or UCK -- the same Albanian acronym as the disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army -- subsequently claimed responsibility for the attack.

The attack shattered the relative ethnic peace between the Macedonian majority and the Albanian minority in the only former Yugoslav republic not to have achieved independence through war.

As the ice and snow began to melt in February, the violence spread eastward to Tanusevci, an isolated mountain village near the border with Kosovo. The insurgents briefly detained a Macedonian TV crew and then engaged in a running battle with security forces along the border.

Meanwhile, older conflicts persisted in Kosovo and the nearby Presevo Valley of southern Serbia, where ethnic Albanians outnumber the Slavic population.

Since the withdrawal of Serb forces from Kosovo in 1999, anti-Serb violence had continued unabated in spite of repeated warnings by the international community.

But on 16 February the violence came to a head, when ethnic Albanian militants bombed a bus full of Serbs near the village of Podujevo. The bus had been under NATO escort at the time.

One of the passengers on the bus told RFE/RL what had happened: "There was just one detonation. At that moment I went flying! I woke up, looked ahead and there was no bus left!"

Two days after the bus attack, a Serbian police vehicle struck two mines near Bujanovac, killing three policemen.

Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic said he sensed a crisis in the making: "It is a classical terrorist act, a hate crime that simply unleashes a spiral [of violence]. It is impossible not to connect this with the [bus bombing] crime committed on the territory of Kosovo a few days ago. So it is the terrorists' response -- a provocation to the entire international community."

Covic authored a peace plan calling for integrating the Presevo Valley's 70,000 ethnic Albanian residents into mainstream political and social life with offers of civil rights guarantees and promises of economic development.

The Albanian community in the Presevo Valley was divided over how to respond, with moderates -- who held elected political office -- welcoming the plan, and radicals in the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja, and Bujanovac (UCPMB) opposed.

The rebels opted for violence, ultimately causing NATO to ally itself with its former enemy: the Yugoslav army.

NATO decided the only way to crack down on the rebels was to allow Serbian armed forces to re-enter a buffer zone in place around Kosovo since the end of the 1999 air strikes. The Serbian army could then prevent the insurgents from slipping back and forth across the boundary or operating unhindered in the zone.

In February, NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson announced that NATO would allow the Yugoslav army and the Serbian Interior Ministry police to gradually re-enter the zone, which he calls a "ground safety zone."

"It is also unacceptable for the ground safety zone to be used as some kind of safe-haven for extremists, so we are preparing for a phased and conditioned reduction of the ground safety zone."

The operation proved to be a success. UCPMB rebels surrendered to KFOR peacekeepers in Kosovo.

In Macedonia, the rebels continued their insurgency. They also published their demands for the first time. They were not looking to establish a breakaway Albanian state, but rather to improve the situation for Macedonia's Albanian minority. They wanted to increase the numbers of ethnic Albanians serving in the police and armed forces and to put the Albanian language on par with Macedonian.

Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski ruled out considering the Albanians' demands for equal civil and language rights until the UCK was defeated.

"After the conclusion of the operations to neutralize the armed groups of extremists, political dialogue should be intensified with all legitimate political parties to open up questions concerning interethnic relations and to find responsible solutions."

In mid-March an attempt by an Albanian party to stage a peace march in Tetovo went awry as UCK rebels on a nearby hilltop fortress started shooting and were cheered on by young protesters in the center of Tetovo.

Macedonian security forces moved in troops and artillery and launched a battle over the next few days, not only for the fortress but for a string of villages in the nearby Sar mountain range.

The international community declared the rebels "terrorists" and declined to negotiate with them. EU foreign policy and security commissioner Javier Solana made frequent visits to Skopje to advise and consult with Macedonia's political leadership. He said at the time: "I think it is a mistake to negotiate with terrorists in this particular case. It is a mistake to do it and we do not recommend doing it."

Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski and his nationalist-oriented party, the VMRO-DPMNE, undertook a massive arms build-up, purchasing helicopters and attack aircraft from Ukraine and ammunition donated from Bulgaria. Anti-UCK sorties by the newly delivered aircraft are alleged to have been flown by Ukrainian and Serbian pilots in the absence of qualified Macedonian pilots.

By the end of March, the Macedonian forces had gained the upper hand and the rebels fled into the Sar mountains and to Kosovo. But then on 28 April, the UCK ambushed a Macedonian security unit in the Sar mountains, killing eight servicemen, wounding six others, and shattering a nearly month-old truce.

Four of the dead came from the southern city of Bitola. After one of the funerals, some 50 ethnic Macedonians went on a nighttime rampage, destroying over 40 Albanian-owned shops and businesses.

Ljubco Taskovski, a dairy worker who was in the crowd, said: "It went on for about two hours, from shop to shop. We know whose shops these are. The people doing this were purely on a raid. They weren't carrying anything more than stones to break glass. They turned things upside down but nothing else."

In May, fighting erupted in the Kumanovo-Lipkovo area, where Macedonian aircraft and artillery pummeled Albanian-inhabited villages day after day. Many civilians declined to flee for fear of being beaten or mistreated by Macedonian security forces.

Lipkovo's municipal secretary, Nexhati Osmani, said thousands of civilians were living for weeks in cellars without electricity and hardly any food or drinking water. "From the start of the fighting until now, no one has been able to bring help, food or medicine."

Then on 6 June, after five more security officers -- three of them from Bitola -- were killed in the Sar mountains, a crowd formed in Bitola's bazaar and proceeded to destroy 50 shops and 20 family homes belonging to Albanians and Macedonian Muslims. Fourteen people were wounded.

Witnesses, including a local Albanian-language TV reporter, Qenan Hasani, said the police did nothing for four hours. "All of this happened in the presence of the Macedonian police, who were just spectators."

In early June, after the UCK seized control of the Albanian-majority hillside village of Aracinovo, just 10 kilometers from Skopje, a local UCK commander, "Hoxha," warned that Macedonian forces had to cease shelling Albanian-inhabited villages or else face an assault on the capital.

"If Ljubco Georgievski does not stop harming our people, we will strike Skopje. He had the weapons before and he used them. Now I've got weapons [within range of Skopje], so why shouldn't I fire at him? We have 120mm artillery pieces and we have rockets too. We will fire on the airport, the country's sole oil refinery, the government building, the parliament, and police posts. We will shoot every place where the police are not from Aracinovo, but from positions higher in the mountains."

International airlines temporarily cancelled flights to Skopje and the number of Albanian refugees fleeing Macedonia soared.

On 25 June, several thousand protesters, many displaced from the fighting near Tetovo, gathered in front of parliament and demanded President Trajkovski resign. Trajkovski held his ground and subsequently came up with a peace plan. The plan served as a basis for protracted negotiations carried out over the summer in the southern resort of Ohrid.

The talks were nearly scuttled on August 12 when eight Macedonian soldiers were killed in a landmine explosion in the Skopje Crna Gora.

Macedonian Interior Ministry forces responded with a three-day operation against the predominantly ethnic Albanian village of Ljuboten, resulting in the deaths of 10 civilians and the arrests of more than 100 people.

The Macedonian government alleged the UCK was present in the village, an issue subsequently refuted by the international human rights NGO Human Rights Watch. HRW accuses the police of indiscriminate shelling of Ljuboten, summary executions, and house burnings. The UN war crimes tribunal chief prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, has since launched an investigation into the Ljuboten killings.

A framework peace agreement was finally agreed to in Ohrid on 13 August. The plan called for the UCK to disarm and disband in exchange for an amnesty for the rebels and for parliament to enact a set of changes to the constitution improving the civil rights of the Albanian minority. It also provided for early elections.

The 11 September terrorist attacks in the U.S. meant that the international community no longer had the time or patience to deal with the Macedonian dispute and wanted it resolved quickly. The attacks also substantially contributed to an end to ethnic violence in Kosovo, as Kosovar Albanians sought to dissociate themselves from any hint that they condone or are engaged in terrorism.

The UCK's handover of weapons to NATO in Macedonia passed off smoothly, although there was grumbling by the Macedonian government that the weapons being handed over were only a fraction of the UCK's arsenal.

Last month, the Macedonian parliament -- after repeated delays -- enacted the changes to the constitution. While there have been some snags, the peace seems to be holding.

Meanwhile, on 17 November, the UN and the OSCE organized Kosovo's first parliamentary elections since the 1999 NATO air strikes. The elections passed off without incident and in contrast to last year's local elections, Serbs and other minorities did not boycott.

The Albanian parties campaigned on a platform of independence for the UN-administered, NATO-occupied province.

Ibrahim Rugova's LDK took first place, with nearly 46 percent of the vote, followed by Hashim Thaci's PDK with nearly 26 percent. The Serb coalition took third place, with over 11 percent of the vote.

The UN's chief administrator for Kosovo, Hans Haekkerup, warned the elections were not about independence but rather a first move toward eventually resolving Kosovo's status.

The electoral victors have convened the provisional parliament of Kosovo and are trying to form a government. The body will have only limited responsibility but it marks a first step on what is likely to be a long road to resolution of what remains an international protectorate in the heart of the Balkans.