Macedonian authorities allege that a group of ethnic Albanian rebels intends to disrupt the 15 September general elections. But as RFE/RL reports, NATO says it has no knowledge of the group or its planned activities.
Prague, 9 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Following weeks of speculation in the Macedonian news media, the Macedonian Interior Ministry yesterday said it could confirm the existence of a 200-man force of ethnic Albanians, calling itself the Army of the Republic of Ilirida (ARISH). Ilirida is the term some Albanian nationalists have used to refer to ethnic Albanian-inhabited northwestern Macedonia.
Macedonian Interior Ministry spokesman Voislav Zafirovski told reporters in Skopje yesterday that Ilirida is a part of a larger political international grouping of Albanian nationalists -- the National Front -- that he says is plotting to disrupt the current parliamentary election campaign and block implementation of the one-year-old Ohrid framework peace agreement. "The long-term goal of the National Front for the Liberation and Unification of Albanian Territories is the creation of a Greater Albanian state in the Balkans."
The threat of a "Greater Albania" is a traditional populist scare tactic in Macedonian and Serbian politics used by nationalists in a bid to win support. Macedonia is due to hold parliamentary elections on 15 September and the ruling Macedonian nationalist party -- the VMRO-DPMNE of Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski and Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski -- is expected to lose by a ratio of at least two to one to the opposition Social Democrats of Branko Crvenkovski.
Zafirovski says Albanian nationalist leaders from Macedonia, Kosovo, Albania, and the diaspora met at a Kosovo Protection Corps (TMK) barracks in Gjilane on 8 July, and then in Elbasan, Albania, on 13 and 14 July. (TMK was established after NATO occupied Kosovo in 1999 as a lightly armed civil defense force, largely consisting of former rebels of the Kosovo Liberation Army, or UCK.)
Zafirovski says the Elbasan and Gjilane meetings resulted in an agreement to launch military operations in Macedonia with the aim of seizing key objects of importance for the state. He alleges the participants also drew up a blacklist of political opponents to be liquidated. Zafirovski says that "state institutions, security forces, as well as Albanian politicians seen as traitors might be targeted."
The Interior Ministry spokesman says the group consists of "petty criminals, drug dealers, and ex-convicts." He says they have the financial support of the exiled pretender to the Albanian throne, Leka Zogu, and are led by Nevzat Halili of Tetovo and an emigre living in Switzerland, Gafur Abdula. "This terrorist structure at the moment is looking for a political patron."
Zafirovski says the group is well armed with weapons that the rebels failed to hand over to NATO forces last autumn during Operation Essential Harvest when the UCK was disarmed and demobilized.
Zafirovski alleges that three ethnic Albanians killed last week were the first victims of Ilirida. Two were killed in separate drive-by shootings in Tetovo: Isuf Ilazi, a former UCK rebel commander known as "Commander Qufa"; and a taxi driver, Taip Betuli. The third, former UCK fighter and parliamentary candidate in Kumanovo, Arif Halili, was killed by stray gunfire at a wedding celebration. The shootings were the first major violent incidents in the region since April.
The mainstream Albanian political parties in Macedonia rejected the Interior Ministry allegations about Ilirida as "pure speculation." And NATO's spokesman in Skopje, Craig Ratcliff, issued a statement saying the alliance has no credible information about the existence of a so-called Army of Ilirida. Ratcliff says the only thing NATO can confirm is that based on reports in the local news media, small armed groups in the region are committing criminal acts. But he says there is nothing to confirm these groups are Ilirida, adding that they do not pose a substantial threat to the country's security.
NATO has 700 peacekeepers in Macedonia and has offered to provide an additional 30 to 40 peacekeepers to help ensure security during the elections, but Georgievski said last month "the government sees no need for additional NATO troops during the elections." Several Macedonian NGOs will be supplying some 5,000 domestic election monitors.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will be deploying 45 long-term observers and 750 short-term election monitors throughout Macedonia in one of its biggest missions ever. The OSCE this week began providing a one-day election security training course to 4,200 Macedonian policemen -- roughly 80 percent of the country's police force.
Interior Ministry spokesman Zafirovski said yesterday the ministry expects "some incidents during the parliamentary elections, especially in the former crisis areas in western Macedonia."
Macedonian security forces yesterday said they had fought a gun battle sending eight armed men fleeing back into Albania.
In another pre-election incident, Albania issued a formal protest on 6 August over an unofficial visit paid by Interior Minister Boskovski to the ethnic Macedonian community in an Albanian border district near Little Prespa Lake.
Boskovski is alleged to have entered Albania illegally, accompanied by armed bodyguards, and to have distributed Macedonian identity cards and promised Macedonian citizenship documents to the local inhabitants, who are Albanian citizens. Albania's recently inaugurated President Alfred Moisiu has accused Boskovski of "threatening Albania's sovereignty."
Such incidents, however, can be expected to cease after 15 September.