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Macedonia: Anti-Albanian Riots Put Conflict On New Level

The weekend attack by ethnic Albanian rebels in the Sar Mountains above Tetovo that left eight Macedonian security officials dead and six others wounded has unleashed a wave of anti-Albanian violence in Macedonia. As RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele reports, the wave of violence is qualitatively different from the violence the country witnessed in March.

Prague, 2 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- In the early hours of yesterday (Tuesday) morning, Macedonian youths staged a rampage through the bazaar in the southern Macedonian city of Bitola, vandalizing and setting fire to over 40 Albanian-owned shops and businesses. The incident -- including attacks on at least 15 more shops last night -- places Macedonia's two-month-old, low-intensity conflict on a new, potentially more explosive level.

Macedonian Deputy Health Minister Muharem Rexhipi is a senior member of the Democratic Party of Albanians (PDSh) and a native of Bitola, which Albanians call Manastir. He says the police failed to intervene and stop the rampage.

Only after a cafe-owner fired a pistol to scare off attackers did the police step in -- to arrest the cafe-owner.

Rexhipi told RFE/RL's Albanian Service the rioters were organized -- though he does not say by whom -- and had a clear goal:

"The population is frightened. They are trying to defend their property because their livelihood depends on it. This was an act organized to frighten Albanians and to coerce them into leaving Bitola. We are trying to calm down the situation."

Albanians make up about 15 percent of the population of Bitola, which is just north of the Greek border and far from the main concentration of ethnic Albanians in northwestern Macedonia, who are believed to constitute anywhere from 20 to 35 percent of the country's population.

Arben Xhaferi, the head of the Democratic Party of Albanians, today compared the riots in Bitola to Kristallnacht -- the Night of Broken Glass -- in Germany in 1938, in which Nazis attacked Jews, synagogues, and Jewish businesses. He added: "It's a typical, primitive tendency to collectivize guilt to blame all Albanians."

Xhaferi says a cafe attacked by unidentified gunmen in Skopje last night was Albanian-owned and that a man shot dead there was an ethnic Albanian. He ruled out the immediate possibility of war, but said it is likely the turmoil is creating fronts between Macedonians and Albanians and hampering dialogue between authorities and the Albanian community. He describes the violence as "a typical post-Yugoslav syndrome of interethnic polarization."

In a further act of anti-Albanian violence, shots were fired last night from a passing car at the Albanian Embassy in Skopje, wounding a policeman. And Macedonian state TV says Albanian insurgents fired on a Macedonian police patrol yesterday near Lipkovo. The hill villages near Lipkovo, northeast of Skopje, are believed to be training grounds for the insurgent National Liberation Army, which goes by the acronym UCK.

Macedonian government spokesman Antonio Milososki said in Skopje today that the riots in Bitola "only facilitate the goal of terrorism, which is civil war." He says the government is appealing for restraint and support for the security forces, which he insists are the only ones capable and responsible of preserving Macedonia's territorial integrity and security."

The first rampage in Bitola came just hours after the funeral of four local policemen who had been killed in a clash Saturday with ethnic Albanian insurgents. However, it also came one day after two official statements that may unintentionally have contributed to the growing anti-Albanian atmosphere.

President Boris Trajkovski, in an interview on Macedonian state television Sunday evening, said the insurgents, whom he referred to as terrorists, "are in fact inflicting the most harm on the members of the Albanian minority in the Republic of Macedonia."

And the general director of Macedonian Radio and Television, Ljubcho Jakimovski, announced three days ago that, with immediate affect, Macedonian TV's second channel would cease broadcasting the evening news in Albanian. He accused the Albanian news department of contradicting editorial policy ever since the security situation in the country began to deteriorate more than two months ago. He said the Albanian-language news program has become a "factor of disintegration of Albanians in Macedonia and is directed at backing violence and ethnic intolerance and encouraging Albanian militant extremism."

The conflict until now has been between armed Albanian insurgents and Macedonian security forces. Civilian casualties have been minimal, although the Macedonian security forces did cause considerable material damage in several Albanian-inhabited villages during their mopping-up operation in late March in the Sar Mountain range.

But after a month of relative calm, the insurgent UCK attacked a Macedonian security unit Saturday evening on the road between the Tetovo district mountain villages of Selce and Vejce, killing the four Bitola policemen and four members of the elite Wolves military unit, and wounding six others.

Macedonian Interior Minister Dosta Dimovska says the attackers entered Macedonia from Kosovo in the area of Selce and Vejce and attacked the Macedonian security forces in an ambush, using hand grenades, bombs, and handguns.

The UCK's political commander, Ahmet Ahmeti, insists the rebels had acted in self-defense after Macedonian troops approached their positions. He told Reuters that the clash was "a provocation by the Macedonian forces so that they could present themselves as the victim."

Ahmeti denied the attack means the UCK is launching a new offensive, saying that "since the Albanian issue has gained momentum, it was not in our interest to attack."

However, the leader of the ethnic Albanian opposition Party for Democratic Prosperity, or PDP, Ymer Ymeri, says the attack was in a response to what he says has been unsuccessful political dialogue between the Macedonian authorities and the Albanian community.

As during past flare-ups, the key issue is whether the Macedonian security forces have the capabilities to suppress a sudden conflagration. Macedonian government spokesman Antonio Milososki, speaking today in Skopje, told reporters that Macedonia has no choice but to prevail.

"At a time when Macedonia is confronted by the monster of terrorism, it has no choice but to win."

Time will tell whether the latest flare-up is a series of tit-for-tat incidents or something more ominous.