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Macedonia: Villagers Trapped As Standoff Continues

As the standoff between government forces and ethnic-Albanian fighters continues in Macedonia, some 10,000 civilians remain trapped in villages occupied by the militants. The International Red Cross says the living conditions of civilians in the villages are deteriorating rapidly.

Prague, 21 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The situation for civilians has increasingly become a major issue in the weeks of battles between Macedonian troops and ethnic-Albanian fighters.

The militants say they are fighting to achieve broader rights for the ethnic-Albanian community, which is estimated at between one-quarter and one-third of the country's 2 million population.

The government -- dominated by Macedonia's Slav majority, but now including politicians from two mainstream ethnic-Albanian parties -- has pledged to crush the fighters it accuses of trying to occupy and control a large part of the country.

Fresh fighting flared yesterday in northwestern Macedonia, when government artillery pounded rebel positions in the area.

An army spokesman, Colonel Blagoje Markovski, said the army had "opened heavy fire twice against terrorists north of Tetovo [and] destroyed a group of five terrorists." The environs of Tetovo, one of Macedonia's largest cities, were the scene of heavy fighting in March.

With the continuing fighting, many villagers remain trapped in their basements with food and medical supplies dwindling.

Redjail Ismaili, a resident of Slupcane -- a town northwest of Kumanova, where much of the fighting is now centered -- told RFE/RL's South Slavic Service that the majority of villagers have not left their homes.

"Some 80 percent of the villagers from Slupcane are still here. So they are in their basements. The situation is the same in other villages near Slupcane."

Ismaili said that a humanitarian crisis is looming over the rebel-held villages.

"There is not enough medical supplies or food. [Tens of thousands] of villagers are facing a difficult humanitarian situation. It's the end of the third week of fighting. In one village, Likovo, no one from any humanitarian organization has even entered the village."

A spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, Amanda Williamson, says the ICRC has made several trips into northern Macedonia to bring supplies to the trapped villages.

"There are still several thousands [of villagers remaining], although I must stress it's extremely difficult to know just how many people there are. There are two villages that are directly affected and [these are] Slupcane and Vaksince. And there are still many civilians who have been sheltering in their basements for days and days. And their situation is still extremely precarious. And we are still very concerned about their situation."

A few thousand villagers have either fled or been evacuated to the north, crossing the border into Yugoslavia's neighboring Kosovo province. About 250 have moved south to government-controlled territory. But the majority of villagers are staying put.

After repeatedly urging civilians to leave the area and make room for an all-out offensive against the rebels, the government has accused the militants of using the local population as a "human shield."

But Williamson says the ICRC has not heard any villagers make this complaint. Instead, she says, many villagers say they are staying out of a sense of solidarity with other civilians.

"Some of them do express a certain reluctance to come into contact with the Macedonian authorities. There also is -- and this is something we have seen develop as time goes on -- a very strong spirit of solidarity. They are mainly clustered in large family groups and they do express a strong wish to stay together and to stay put in that situation. And this intent seems to increase as time goes on even if their trauma certainly increases at the same time."

Williamson says the ICRC has managed to move in some food and medical supplies to the besieged villages. But she emphasizes that, with fresh-water supplies dwindling, hygiene and sanitation conditions are deteriorating rapidly. Yet Williamson says she would not call the situation in northern Macedonia a humanitarian crisis.

"I would hesitate to use the term humanitarian crisis at this stage, but that's not to underestimate how difficult the situation is for these people. We've noticed a steady deterioration each time we've been [to the area]. We try to respond as much as we can. But as we've said, humanitarian action alone won't solve this situation."

A resolution of the conflict in northern Macedonia hardly seems forthcoming in the near future: The ethnic-Albanian fighters show no signs of surrendering, and the government still has not agreed to negotiate with the militants.