A week after fighting erupted between ethnic Albanians and Macedonian security forces in the western Macedonian town of Tetovo, the leaders of the insurgency have begun explaining their reasons for resorting to violence. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele, just back from Tetovo, reports on the rapidly expanding National Liberation Army, or UCK, which today rejected an ultimatum by Macedonian authorities to end the fighting.
Prague, 21 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Ethnic Albanian insurgents in western Macedonia today rejected a Macedonian government ultimatum to surrender or withdraw from positions in the mountains overlooking the city of Tetovo.
A commander of the rebel National Liberation Army, or UCK, told reporters by telephone that the rebels intend to advance and open new fronts. The commander, who calls himself "Sokoli," says the guerillas will not leave their positions until their demands have been met. He says they are prepared to defend themselves against any attack.
Sokoli recently (March 17) spoke with RFE/RL's Albanian Service by telephone. He said that the rebels are fighting for freedom and equality and are not demanding that Macedonia's borders be changed:
"We are not attacking. We are defending. If the Macedonian government agrees to resolve the problems by political means, why are they attacking us? They are to be blamed. So far they have not shown any will to negotiate."
The UCK commander says 80 percent of the guerillas are from Macedonia. He says the remainder are from Kosovo and other regions inhabited by ethnic Albanians.
The shooting and shelling between Albanian rebels in the Sar Mountains above Tetovo and Macedonian security forces first erupted a week ago (March 14). The fighting has since grown in intensity.
The sound of machine-gun fire around Tetovo could be heard yesterday as the army stepped up its military operations, using tanks for the first time to try to intimidate the rebels. Overnight and today, the shooting died down as government forces allowed civilians to leave.
In the capital Skopje, the government of Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski appears in danger of collapse. The ailing chairman of the ethnic Albanian party in the coalition, Arben Xhaferi of the Democratic Party of Albanians, says his party will withdraw from the government if civilians are wounded or if the Macedonian government adopts what he terms "the Yugoslav way of war." By that, he means if the army begins targeting civilians and residential property.
The uprising spread and intensified last week from the hills north of the capital toward Tetovo, a mostly ethnic-Albanian city of some 70,000 people.
Last Thursday the army deployed at least 10 152-mm howitzer cannons near Tetovo and this week it moved in T-55 tanks and 20 armored personnel carriers. But the Macedonian army, with just 16,000 soldiers, is poorly prepared to deal with the small but rapidly expanding guerilla force of the National Liberation Army.
The authorities say they have no intention of letting the ethnic Albanian fighters get the upper hand. In the words of Interior Ministry spokesman Stevo Pendarovski: "we will not lose one meter of our territory." He added that the fighting will be "harsh" and may last for months with "many casualties on both sides."
Security forces have also begun patrolling the area with helicopters. Yesterday, through an agreement with Ukraine pre-dating the fighting, Macedonia took delivery of four Mi-8 helicopters that Ukraine had deployed in Kosovo for transporting troops.
The German army has some 1,200 troops deployed in and around Tetovo as part of a rear-guard logistics facility for KFOR that it shares with the Macedonian army. But after the Macedonian army deployed battle tanks on Monday only 100 meters from the base, the Germans evacuated most of their troops to another base about 12 kms east of Tetovo. A base spokesman, Captain Arne Pollei, says a few soldiers remain, together with several German tanks. Last week, the German forces dismissed nearly 90 percent of their local employees in Tetovo after they allegedly caught one employee spying for the ethnic Albanian fighters.
It's not clear how many ethnic Albanian fighters the army is facing. A member of the UCK's general staff, Sadri Ahmeti, says there are around 2,000 fighters in Tetovo and around 6,000 in the country as a whole. Other reports say there are far fewer.
Ahmeti says the guerrillas have lost one soldier so far in the Tetovo area and that seven fighters have been wounded. He says the Macedonian forces have suffered casualties, but the Macedonian authorities deny this.
Ahmeti also says his fighters have repelled several attacks and still hold the old "kale," or fortress, on top of the hill overlooking Tetovo. The small fortress, which the Ottoman Turks spent 20 years building starting in 1795 -- but never completed -- has tunnels into the surrounding hills. It blocks off access from Tetovo to the Sar Mountains.
The Italian daily "La Repubblica" yesterday quoted Ahmeti as saying the rebels have been training for at least six months in areas with large Albanian populations "in [the towns and cities of] Gostivar, Skopje, Kumanovo, and Kicevo." He said others are joining their ranks following a recent appeal by the UCK for all able-bodied men.
Ahmeti told the Rome daily "this is a war that is being fought in order to win rights that have been denied for too long -- and all of us Albanians are in it." And he says the UCK is ready at any time to take the fighting into the streets of Skopje.
Ahmeti is a veteran of the of the former UCK's [Kosovo Liberation Army's] war against Serbian forces in Kosovo in 1998 and 1999. He told a Western news agency (Reuters) that he favors annexing the Albanian-inhabited districts of western Macedonia to Kosovo. In his words, "this is my desire and that of my soldiers, but our general staff has the last say on that issue." He denies the present UCK leadership favors introducing a federal system in Macedonia, saying no decision has yet been reached.
Ahmeti says the UCK already controls "about a dozen villages" on the heights above Tetovo. He says the rebels seized the villages to show what they are capable of. And he adds,: "If we had wanted to capture Tetovo, we would already have done so -- but we want to avoid a civil war that would turn into a bloodbath. We want only to negotiate."
The Bulgarian daily "Monitor" yesterday carried an interview with Macedonian Prime Minister Georgievski in which he says the Albanian fighters had organized the campaign over a long period of time. He said their logistical support, weapons, and organizers come from Kosovo and that they number from 500 to 1,000.
In Georgievski's words: "The international community is afraid of acknowledging that the current situation in Macedonia is the result of the spread of the Kosovo crisis [because] its admission would make it clear that the NATO intervention [two years ago] and the policy of the international community have failed to produce results."
Georgievski ruled out talks with the Albanian fighters. He said: "No one is considering starting such talks. Our only wish is to root out terrorism."
But Xhaferi, the chief of the Albanian party in the Georgievski government, disagrees. He told the Macedonian government news agency MIA that the crisis has what he calls an internal character. He says the Albanian fighters' key demand is to change the Macedonian Constitution to give Albanians equal status with Macedonians as a "state-forming" people and to place the Albanian language on par with Macedonian as an official language.