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Macedonia: Coordinated Strategy Limits Options For Ethnic Albanian Extremists

Ethnic Albanian extremists in Macedonia and southern Serbia are becoming increasingly isolated -- both politically and in terms of their military flexibility. The trend is the result of a coordinated effort by NATO countries and Balkan governments. RFE/RL's Ron Synovitz examines how the international strategy is rapidly eroding the options of the extremists.

Prague, 17 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- An international strategy to isolate ethnic Albanian extremists in the Balkans appears to be working.

The strategy is a two-pronged approach. On one hand, Western officials are trying to prevent the militants from gaining political clout as a result of their attacks on Macedonian and Yugoslav forces.

On the other hand, border patrols by NATO-led peacekeepers have been increased in a bid to stop the militants from crossing between Kosovo and Macedonia or Serbia's Presevo Valley.

NATO also has been allowing Yugoslav forces to gradually deploy in a five-kilometer wide buffer zone that has separated Kosovo from the rest of Yugoslavia since the end of the Kosovo war in June of 1999.

Earlier this week, NATO officials gave the Yugoslav army permission to move into the last remaining part of the buffer zone -- the guerrilla-held "Sector B" between Kosovo and the Presevo Valley.

That deployment is due to take place on 24 May. Until then, in an attempt to avert a bloody battle in Sector B, KFOR has offered an amnesty to extremists who surrender -- provided they have not committed serious crimes.

The amnesty deal also appears to have been coordinated between NATO, Belgrade, and Skopje. Both Macedonia and Yugoslavia this week announced plans to allow extremists a way to retreat into Kosovo.

Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy and security chief, outlined the political containment strategy in March during one of his many trips to Macedonia since extremists first attacked security forces in late February:

"The terrorists have to be isolated. Even the Albanian prime minister from Tirana [Ilir Meta] is condemning the activities of these terrorists. So with more reason, all of us have to condemn and isolate the terrorists. Nothing, to my mind, can be achieved through violence."

Solana stressed that the international community is working to ensure the crisis does not threaten regional stability in the Balkans in general, and specifically in Macedonia:

"We in the European Union, together with NATO and together with the [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] are going to do our best so that the situation gets stable, your country has security and your country has the prosperity that you deserve."

The strategy has prevented extremists from obtaining any direct role in negotiations aimed at resolving the complaints of ordinary ethnic Albanians in Macedonia. Solana indicated this has been a goal of the international community from the outset of the crisis:

"One has to separate completely the violent activities from whatever reforms have to be done in [Macedonia]. So whatever negotiations, whatever discussions, whatever dialogue is started -- it has to be absolutely decoupled from the violent acts."

Instead, Western officials have helped bring together all of Macedonia's elected political parties into a broad-based government.

The so-called unity government includes what formerly had been Macedonia's main Slav and ethnic Albanian opposition parties. It has the support of more than 100 of the 110 parliamentary deputies.

Robert Frowick, the OSCE's special envoy on the Macedonian crisis, told RFE/RL this week that he expects ethnic Albanian militants will come under increased international pressure to lay down their weapons.

"The international community has been quite important in helping the indigenous political leaders on all sides come together to create this coalition government [in Macedonia.] I think the international community also will be important in persuading all concerned to have a cessation of hostilities. This mainly means to make it absolutely clear to the Albanian [extremists] that they have to stop their actions."

The U.S. presidential adviser for the Balkans, James Pardew, also has taken an active role. Pardew traveled to Kosovo in March for talks with Kosovo's ethnic Albanian leaders.

Among those he met was a politician alleged to be closely linked to extremists in both Macedonia and southern Serbia -- Emrush Xhemajli, head of the People's Movement of Kosovo. Pardew warned Xhemajli that Washington would not tolerate any support for the extremists.

On the military front, German and U.S. KFOR peacekeepers played an indirect role in Macedonia's March offensive by cutting off the militant's retreat routes into Kosovo.

Dozens of suspected militants were detained by KFOR in that operation. U.S. interrogators at Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo told RFE/RL that most have since been released.

KFOR also has increased its efforts to stop extremists from sneaking back and forth between Kosovo and southern Serbia's Presevo Valley.

Yesterday, following the capture by Yugoslav forces of the village of Oraovica in Serbia proper, KFOR announced it had detained 45 militants who were trying to retreat to Kosovo.

And last night, a joint U.S.-Russian KFOR patrol near the buffer zone traded gunfire with ethnic Albanian militants. Six extremists were detained.

Such incidents demonstrate that KFOR has become more active on Kosovo's borders since the Macedonian crisis erupted.

Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski says army forces will continue exercising restraint in their confrontation with ethnic Albanian extremists -- despite the expiration of a noon deadline today for the militants to lay down their weapons.

Trajkovski says the current cease-fire is allowing hundreds of civilians to safely leave villages in the battle zone. But he said the decision against an immediate ground assault should not be taken as a sign of hesitancy.

Government tanks and artillery are deployed in a wide arc around guerrilla-held villages just south of Macedonia's border with Kosovo and Serbia's Presevo Valley.

In the past, after the expiration of similar ultimatums, Macedonia's army has waited until dawn of the following day before launching ground assaults.

Solana has said that as long as the army operates with restraint, the international community will continue to support Macedonia's efforts to defend itself:

"What military activity that the [Macedonian] government may take to defend themselves has to be done in a proportional manner and according to all the values and principles that [the European Union] has. They [may] defend [themselves], but they have to defend themselves in a proportional manner."

With reports that extremists are still active today in the villages of Slupcane and Opae, it appears likely that the Macedonian army will be tested again soon on its ability to conduct a campaign against the ethnic Albanian fighters without excessive civilian casualties or damage to civilian property.