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Macedonia: Fatal Clash May Point To Rising Tensions Over Kosovo

A special Macedonian police unit secures the road into the village of Vaksince, site of a deadly shoot-out on September 10 (AFP) September 11, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Violence involving ethnic Albanians in Macedonia has sparked concerns that tensions over the unresolved status of Kosovo are beginning to bubble over.

The most recent incident came on September 10 when a police commander and a gunman were killed in a clash in an ethnic Albanian village near Macedonia's border with Kosovo.

The violence has made headlines and prompted the parliament in Skopje to call emergency sessions to discuss the situation. The latest sitting is taking place today.

Some analysts suggest the incidents are tied to Kosovo, where demands by the ethnic-Albanian majority for full independence from Serbia have so far been thwarted by Belgrade and its main ally on the UN Security Council, Russia. Whatever the explanation, some six years after an internationally brokered peace deal prevented a civil war from breaking out in Macedonia, the fresh violence is again raising questions about the future of the Balkans, Europe's most volatile region.

"[The violence] may involve matters of smugglers," says Patrick Moore, a regional analyst for RFE/RL. "It may involve some other criminal relations. It could involve family feuds, politics, or any combination of these factors. They all overlap there."

The first incident came in early August, when alleged ethnic Albanians attacked a police station in Gosince, near the border with Kosovo. That area was the base of the ethnic-Albanian insurgency in 2001, when rising tensions with Macedonia's Slavic majority appeared close to exploding into the next Balkan war.

Fresh Clash

Then, on August 31, came reports of a clash between ethnic Albanians and Macedonian security forces near the mountain village of Tanusevci, on the border with Kosovo.

A former member of parliament and leader of a local group of ethnic-Albanian guerrillas during the 2001 separatist conflict, Xhezair Shaqiri, told media that he and his supporters drove back police after they tried to enter the village. Police, however, denied reports that there had been an exchange of gunfire with Shaqiri's men.

One week before that, Shaqiri had announced that Tanusevci was preparing a referendum on seceding from Macedonia and uniting with neighboring Kosovo. An August 24 report in the daily "Fakti" quoted Shaqiri as saying "the government is showing absolutely no interest in this part of the country."

Shaqiri is reportedly wanted by police for the kidnapping of a local mayor during the 2001 conflict. He has denied media speculation that Tanusevci is being used as a hideaway by two ethnic-Albanian militants who escaped from a high-security prison in Kosovo. Whether one of the fugitives took part in the September 10 clash is unclear. Reports suggest he could have been involved, however.

Police Commander Shot Dead

In that incident, a Macedonian police commander, an ethnic Albanian, was shot dead and two police officers were injured in a gunfight in Vaksince, in the predominantly ethnic Albanian area of northeastern Macedonia. Officials said a gunman was also killed, with two others reportedly injured.

Macedonian television reported that the group involved included the brother and two nephews of a convicted terrorist, Xhemail Iseini, who escaped from prison in Macedonia in August and eluded police for almost two weeks before being recaptured.

The question now is, who or what is behind these incidents? The short answer is it's unclear, but crime and politics are the main suspects.

Macedonian Interior Minister Gordana Jankulovska, speaking to parliament, denied politics had anything to do with the deadly September 10 shoot-out. "We consider that crime-fighting -- and this is a case of crime -- cannot be put in the context of politics. This is not a security question," he said.

But Radmila Sekerinska, leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party, believes the incidents reflect a serious political and security risk for Macedonia. "Do you think that this happened by accident, and that there is no security risk for the Republic of Macedonia, when in Kosovo they [last month] seized 90 kilograms of explosives and a serious amount of weapons?" Sekerinska said. "The Kosovar authorities and international officials said these weapons may have arrived in Kosovo from Macedonia."

Concerns About Destabilization

For now, Macedonia's main ethnic-Albanian opposition party, the Democratic Union for Integration, is not commenting on the incidents, apparently out of concerns over destabilizing the situation in Kosovo. Some analysts have warned that if the final status of Kosovo results in a partition between its mainly Serbian north and its ethnic-Albanian parts, then that could set a dangerous separatist precedent for the entire region.

"The main case against partition has always been the precedent that it would set for Macedonia and for Bosnia," says William Montgomery, a former U.S. ambassador to both Croatia and Serbia. "By the way, the Albanians will insist on a part of southern Serbia as well."

Speaking today in Budapest, Bosnian Prime Minister Nikola Spiric appeared to underscore those concerns, suggesting that his country fears a resolution of Kosovo's final status could spark separatist ambitions among its Serbian, Croatian, and Muslim communities.

Tensions have been rising among ethnic Albanians and other ethnic groups in the region over Kosovo's independence demands. The UN has imposed a deadline of December 10 for internationally brokered negotiations between Kosovar and Serbian officials to end. Kosovo has been under UN administration since 1999.

But amid opposition by Russia, which threatens to veto any independence plan, Kosovo says it may bypass the UN and set out on its own. Prime Minister Agim Ceku has said Pristina could take such a move as early as November, if talks with Serbia "fail to open a way."

(RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service contributed to this report.)

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