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Macedonia: Fighting Continues As Grand Coalition Threatened

Macedonian security forces again shelled ethnic Albanian villages near the border with Serbia today after residents failed to heed repeated warnings to evacuate the area. Meanwhile, plans proceeded to form a broad coalition government.

Prague, 9 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Residents of six ethnic Albanian villages near Macedonia's border with Serbia apparently ignored repeated appeals -- broadcast by radio at half-hourly intervals this morning -- to leave their homes during a five-hour cease-fire and either go to the border with Kosovo or to the district capital, Kumanovo.

But the Makfax news agency says no residents of the villages, held by ethnic Albanian extremists, had fled the crisis area by the 10 am (local time) deadline. Makfax and other Macedonian media allege the rebels have been using the local villagers as human shields while fighting Macedonian security forces, and are demanding high ransom to release the civilians. Albanian-language media in Macedonia, however, insist the villagers are staying put because they distrust the authorities.

The independent Albanian-language Skopje daily Fakti today reported that the villagers "do not trust the appeals of the Macedonian police, fearing they may be mistreated." Fakti quotes a local resident as saying "a great number of people from the Opaja and Lopat villages abandoned their homes only to be subjected to bestial treatment by the Macedonian police."

Fakti says that in the village of Vaksince, the "inhabitants are threatened with a humanitarian catastrophe." The paper says "food shortages are making themselves felt ever more with each passing day. Medicines are totally lacking, while the number of those in need of them is increasing." Fakti says Macedonian shelling from tanks, artillery, and grenade launchers destroyed four houses in Vaksince yesterday, bringing the total number to 24 of houses destroyed there since last Thursday.

Fakti publisher and editor in chief Emin Azemi says the roots of the current crisis go back many years and are about power:

"The crisis is not the result of a bad coalition. That view is wrong and naive. The crisis has a different origin and its own dynamics. It is older than the current coalition. Those who are supporting establishment of a new broad coalition government probably want to share the responsibility among all the political subjects in Macedonia."

The ruling and opposition parties agreed yesterday on forming a broad coalition in advance of early elections next January.

Arben Xhaferi's Democratic Party of Albanians, or PDSh, which is in the current government, has welcomed the grand coalition. Parliament deputy Ilias Halimi:

"The new coalition government is a very positive step. I hope it will form within the next few days. It is a step toward stabilization in Macedonia and a step toward solving the problems of Albanians in Macedonia."

However, the Albanian opposition Party for Democratic Progress, or PDP, still has not made up its mind about whether to join the coalition. PDP deputy and former Deputy Prime Minister Nasir Zyberi says his party wants peace before it joins the new government.

"First of all, to stop the fighting in Macedonia it makes no sense to form a coalition while tanks are firing at villages. The new government has to have a clear platform stating what it wants. And, we want to know how much influence we will have in the coalition."

A commander of the rebel National Liberation Army (UCK), who calls himself Sokoli, told the Kosovo news agency Kosovo Live that unless the proposed Macedonian government includes the UCK, in his words, a broad coalition "would prolong the bloodbath and trigger additional damage."

In fact, a deal appears to be in the works between the PDP and the government. The Reuters news agency reports that the security forces would stop shelling rebel positions near Kumanovo and give the UCK fighters 72 hours to withdraw from the villages they occupied last week, thereby enabling the security forces to move in.

The composition of the broad coalition has not yet been announced. Unofficial reports say that Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski's nationalists of VMRO-DPMNE would retain the ministries of interior, finance, agriculture, education, and culture, while handing over to the Social Democrats, or SDSM, the ministries of foreign affairs, defense, health and environment. Xhaferi's PDSh would get the ministries of labor and social policy, while Ymer Ymeri's Party for Democratic Prosperity, if it joins the government, would get the Justice Ministry and a minister without portfolio. The small Liberal Party would get a deputy prime ministership.

The division of ministries is a confirmation of VMRO-DPMNE's rural interests and its intention to share responsibility while maintaining control over the purse strings. The expected departure of Foreign Minister Srdjan Kerim, an ethnic Turk, is likely to be perceived as a loss in many capitals where Kerim has earned a reputation as an intelligent voice of reason.

It is far from clear whether by spreading responsibility among five parties Macedonia will be in a better position to deal with the threat to its precarious stability posed by the UCK. The extremists -- or "terrorists," as the authorities call them -- appear intent on disruption at any cost. Their stated goals are largely identical with those of Xhaferi's PDSh and Ymeri's PDP. One can only speculate about their unstated goals -- regional destabilization in a bid to delay general elections in Kosovo, due late this year, until radical parties regain the upper hand from the moderates led by Ibrahim Rugova. A victory in Kosovo by radical former commanders of the UCK such as Hashim Thaci and Ramush Haradinaj could then lead to moves toward unifying Kosovo with Albanian-inhabited western districts of Macedonia.

Janusz Bugajski is the director for East Europe at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He tells RFE/RL that independence for Kosovo is one of four preconditions for peace and stability in Macedonia:

"It's essential further north to have an independent Kosovo because without the independence, I think, Kosovo is not a stable, secure part of the Balkans. I think lack of independence encourages those who think that borders haven't been settled. I think moves have to be made not only to have elections, but to have a proper government, a self-government in Pristina, by the end of the year with full authority and more responsibility."

Bugajski says independence for Montenegro is also essential because he says the Yugoslav federal structure impedes the functioning of the Montenegrin and Serbian, as well as the Kosovo, administrations.

Nevertheless, Bugajski also says constitutional changes are also needed in Macedonia, as is a contract between the country's Albanian and Macedonian leaderships guaranteeing what he terms a fuller life for Albanians in Macedonia and their incorporation in all public institutions.