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Yugoslavia: Skirmishes Continue Along Macedonia Border

Pristina, 9 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- More fighting has been reported between Macedonian security forces and ethnic Albanian guerillas in the border region between Kosovo and Macedonia.

A convoy carrying Macedonian police and government officials was ambushed by ethnic Albanian fighters overnight. One policeman was killed in an exchange of fire.

Three Macedonian soldiers died in the area in clashes earlier this week. Macedonian Foreign Minister Srdjan Kerim says the Skopje government is asking NATO to deploy troops all along the country's border with Kosovo to prevent further infiltration into Macedonia by ethnic Albanian gunmen. At the same time, the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force says an operation launched yesterday to clear parts of the border area of ethnic Albanian fighters has ended.

KFOR officer Major James Marshall says the operation early yesterday (8 March) near the border village of Tanusevci achieved its objective of eliminating a safe haven for the rebels.

"This was a successful conclusion to our operation. We have achieved the objectives that we wanted to at the outset, which was to eliminate this part of Kosovo as a safe haven for these armed groups, secondly, restore a safe and secure environment to Kosovo, and third, to resolve this peacefully."

The operation was coordinated with Macedonian troops who were operating on the Macedonian side of the border. Tanusevci has been the site of numerous recent skirmishes between ethnic Albanians and Macedonian forces. Macedonia's Defense Ministry says its troops have cleared the village of Albanian gunmen.

But it's still not certain whether KFOR soldiers actually crossed into Macedonia, where they do not have a mandate to operate.

Foreign reporters (AFP/BBC) yesterday said they had entered Macedonian parts of Tanusevci with U.S. troops of the NATO-led Kosovo peacekeeping force KFOR.

But the reports were quickly denied by the Macedonian Defense Ministry and KFOR.

Macedonian Defense Ministry spokesman Georgi Trendafilov was the first to announce there were no U.S. KFOR troops on the Macedonian side of the border.

"On the territory of the Republic of Macedonia -- specifically, in the village of Tanusevci -- the Macedonian army is deployed on its regular lines. Unfortunately, there are also terrorists in the area around Tanusevci. The activities of U.S. troops are exclusively on the other side of the border. Rigorous measures are also being taken on the other side of the border in ridding the terrain [of rebels]."

In Washington yesterday NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson said KFOR troops were careful to stay within Kosovo:

"The KFOR troops operate within Kosovo. That is where the agreement is, that is where the mandate is. It doesn't go beyond that."

Our correspondent in Pristina reports the border between Kosovo and Macedonia is not marked in Tanusevci, a village of about 800 residents, almost all of whom are ethnic Albanians. A treaty between Yugoslavia and Macedonia defining the border was signed only last month.

The last census, seven years ago, counted about 80 houses in the village, dispersed over a wide area surrounded by fields, pastures, and forests. How much of Tanusevci stretches into Kosovo is not clear.

The joint Macedonian-KFOR operation followed several days of fighting in the area.

U.S. forces at Mijak, northwest of Tanusevci on the Kosovo side, shot at a group of five rebels on 7 March, wounding two of them. Later that night, Macedonian forces exchanged fire with what Trendafilov says were 50 rebels on horseback who approached Tanusevci first from Mijak and subsequently from the northeast.

In recent days, KFOR had deployed several hundred soldiers in and around Mijak and another Kosovar village, Debelde. KFOR established direct communications links two days ago with Macedonian security forces at the Kodra Fura observation post, two kilometers from Tanusevci.

KFOR also maintains an observation post, staffed by Belgian soldiers, on the Macedonian side of the border some 800 meters from Tanusevci.

U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Owens, who led the operation up to the border, says the rebels withdrew early yesterday (8 March). He says they loaded material into a vehicle and onto several donkeys and left in the direction of Macedonia.

Representatives of the international community said in Pristina today that they are concerned about the violence along the Kosovo-Macedonian border. But apart from KFOR and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, international organizations in Kosovo are not playing a major role.

OSCE spokeswoman Claire Trevena says:

"Well, we have asked for restraint and we want the border to be calmed down. This comes primarily from [OSCE headquarters in] Vienna. We haven't had any reports yet whether we are satisfied with the specific action that has taken place, but we are urging for it to be calmed down and we have shown our support for FYROM [Macedonia]."

The spokesman for the UN administration in Kosovo, UNMIK, Sunil Narula says the UN agrees with the OSCE on the need for calm along the border. He rejects Macedonian allegations that the violence is coming from the Kosovo side of the border.

"We certainly don't want it to become -- to get -- 'Kosovarized,' you know. And that is, as I have been saying, it is a problem. The unrest does not have its origin in Kosovo and it is from the other side of the border. It has nothing to do with Kosovo. But we are very concerned about it because it does impact on security [in Kosovo]."

The UN spokesman says "UNMIK is not really doing anything" about the rebellion. In his words: "It is KFOR that is tackling the situation at the ground level."