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Macedonia: Ambush Derails Prospects For Truce With Ethnic Albanians

A clash in Macedonia over the weekend left eight government commandos dead and was the most serious incident since fighting between government troops and ethnic Albanian militants began in February. The attack has dimmed hopes of lasting calm in the wake of a government offensive last month that appeared to have dispersed ethnic Albanian rebels. RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos reports.

Prague, 30 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Talks aimed at ending the conflict in Macedonia are in doubt after eight Macedonian security officers were killed over the weekend in an exchange of fire with ethnic Albanian fighters near the village of Vejce, not from the Kosovar border.

Saturday's attack on a joint patrol of 16 soldiers and police officers was the most serious single incident since fighting erupted in February, and ended a month-long lull. It puts into question the fate of negotiations between the government and opposition parties for a new coalition which, it was thought, could pave the way for many of the reforms sought by the ethnic Albanian minority.

Reports that the guerrillas first fired on the patrol with machine-guns and rocket-propelled grenades, and then disfigured the corpses, have further reduced the prospect of negotiations. Nikola Dimitrov, security adviser to President Boris Trajkovski, said the guerrillas had gone out of their way to disfigure the corpses. He called the attack "unbelievable" and said it would undoubtedly damage the political process.

A leader of the rebel ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army (NLA), Ali Ahmeti, told Reuters today that the ethnic Albanian fighters acted in self-defense and were fired on first by the Macedonian patrol. The claim could not be independently confirmed.

The incident was discussed at an emergency cabinet meeting yesterday (Sunday) afternoon. Macedonia's national security council, which encompasses the army, police, intelligence services and the president's office, was to decide what action to take.

Trajkovski cancelled a planned visit to Romania to attend the cabinet meeting. He is due to fly to Washington later today for talks with President George W. Bush.

The attack has burdened ethnic Albanian politicians in Macedonia, who had previously been negotiating with government officials for increased rights for the minority.

Arben Xhaferi, the leader of the main ethnic Albanian party within the governing coalition (the Party for Democratic Prosperity of Albanians), condemned the ambush. He said that it will endanger the progress of negotiations and deepen the polarization between Macedonians and Albanians.

Talks about a new government were due to conclude by the end of the week. Many Albanian politicians have expressed frustration at what they see as a lack of progress. Albanian parties want constitutional change, and more language and employment rights. Other demands by the Albanian side include state funding for a university for ethnic Albanians and switching state television's third channel into 24-hour Albanian language programming.

Observers say the major stumbling block remains the government's refusal to change the constitution, which ethnic Albanians say enshrines Slav domination. The NLA has said it has the same goals for reform. But Saturday's ambush reinforced the view held by many majority politicians that the guerrillas merely want territory and are not interested in dialogue.

Western officials have also condemned the attack. NATO Secretary General George Robertson called the attacks cowardly and said they would not be successful.

But Macedonian officials have criticized NATO for not doing enough to put down the fledgling rebel movement. Officials say guerrillas in Macedonia are receiving weapons from sympathizers in Kosovo. They say KFOR peacekeepers have not successfully closed down the NLA's supply routes in the south of the province.

Residents in the western Tetovo region, where most Albanians live, say that in recent weeks rebels have stepped up efforts to bring in men and weapons from Kosovo.

KFOR spokesman Major Axel Jankesek says the NATO-led peacekeeping group has increased its border patrols.

"We increased our border surveillance along the border to Macedonia, and furthermore, as reaction to this incident, we increased our patrols and we started immediately with more aerial surveillance."

Jankesek did concede, however, that KFOR has had difficulty monitoring the border.

"The problem in this border is that it is a high mountainous area. It is very difficult to watch this border. What we know is that we are able to prevent major movements of groups. We have all our military equipment there to survey all the movements."

Jankesek says that official criticism of KFOR is irrelevant in any case. He says responsibility for putting down the rebel movement lies with the Macedonian government alone:

"Everything which is said from the government, accusing us of not doing enough and that our measures are not appropriate to the situation, is definitely not true. And from our point of view and from what we see on the Kosovo side is that there are no suspicious movements. But anyway we have a high concern about the situation and the further developments. But from our point of view it is an issue of the government to manage the situation."

Although no new violence was reported today, the police re-imposed a curfew in the city of Tetovo from 2200 to 0500. Macedonian forces have increased their presence in the area where the attack took place.