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Macedonia: Questions Linger, Rumors Abound In Torching Of Bitola's Albanian Businesses

Four weeks ago, in two consecutive nights of violence, crowds of Macedonian Slavs ransacked Albanian-owned shops, cafes, and homes in Bitola, Macedonia's second-largest city. Two days later, clashes began between the Macedonian army and ethnic Albanian fighters, in an armed conflict that has yet to abate. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele visited Bitola in a search for answers about who was behind the rampage.

Bitola, Macedonia; 30 May2001 (RFE/RL) -- It has been almost a month since Macedonian rioters smashed and set fire to a string of Albanian-owned pastry shops and cafes in Bitola. The incident followed the funerals of four local policemen, killed along with four soldiers in an ambush by Albanian insurgents a few days earlier in the Sar Mountains in northwestern Macedonia.

Since then, broken shards of plate glass outside the shops have been carted off. Graffiti -- crosses and the words, in Macedonian, "Death to the Albanians" -- have been scrawled on some shop facades. The blackened interiors remain a scene of devastation, with rotting cream cakes and baklava lying amid smashed mirrors and display cases.

During the traditional Sunday afternoon promenade ("corso"), Albanians are nowhere to be seen. Many have left to stay with friends or relatives elsewhere in Macedonia or abroad.

Bitola, known to Albanians as Monastir, had a flourishing Albanian population until the mid-20th century. The town is revered by Albanians as the place where in 1908 and 1909 they adopted a standardized alphabet for the Albanian language using Latin letters, ending the practice by some of using the Greek alphabet and by others of using Arabic script to write in Albanian.

However, Bitola's Albanians have been a dwindling minority for the last half-century. Some 30,000 emigrated from the city and its surroundings to Turkey as part of a Yugoslav policy to reduce the Albanian population in Serbia, Kosovo, and Macedonia by offering Albanians the opportunity to leave.

According to the 1994 census, which many Albanians boycotted, Albanians make up only 2,000 of Bitola's population of 86,000, or just over two percent. An additional 2,600 live in surrounding villages. But the main ethnic Albanian political party, the Democratic Party of Albanians, or PDSh, estimates the Albanian population is nearly double the census figure.

Ljubco Taskovski is a 35-year-old ethnic Macedonian and a reservist in the Macedonian army. He has a job at the local dairy plant and owns a trailer from which he sells fresh doughnuts on the corso. He says it was the brothers, sisters, and friends of the four murdered policemen who were the "organizers" of the rampage in the early hours of 1 May. They were joined, he adds, by others they met in the street:

"It went on for about two hours, from shop to shop. We know whose shops these were. The people doing this were purely on a raid. They weren't carrying anything more than stones to break glass. They turned things upside down, but [did] nothing else."

Taskovski says some 50 people -- from Bitola and from the villages of the dead policemen -- participated in the violence:

"They rose up in response to the deaths of innocent soldiers, and as a warning to the Albanians who are in Bitola -- not that we are going to kill people, but that we are going to draw the line. We can kill, but before [we do] that we will warn them. [If] we break glass and smash [their] workshops, [Albanians] will stop killing soldiers and policemen."

Taskovski's remarks echo an unsubstantiated report, broadcast at the time by a private TV station, which alleged that Albanians in Bitola and nearby villages celebrated the deaths of the four local policemen by firing off their guns in celebration. Several people interviewed said the TV report was one of the factors that incited Macedonians to riot.

Taskovski accuses some of Bitola's Albanians of being "terrorists" and of battling the Macedonian army in the north of the country.

Macedonia's Deputy Health Minister Muarem Nexhipi is politically the senior member of Bitola's Albanian community. A Zagreb-educated medical doctor, he is a leader of PDSh and a possible successor to the ailing party chief Arben Xhaferi. Nexhipi was in Bitola during the unrest. He says a total of 42 shops and businesses, as well as about 10 kiosks, were attacked the first night (between 00:20 and 04:30 local time) as the police watched and did nothing.

Nexhipi says that about an hour after starting to set fire to Albanian businesses in the center of Bitola, the crowd moved to a pastry shop near his house, setting it on fire as well. When the fire department arrived, he says the crowd attacked the firemen, who Nexhipi says turned their hoses on the demonstrators, dispersing the gathering and saving the Nexhipi home from attack. He says that "a large number of police" intervened to protect his house from two subsequent attempts to set it alight.

Macedonian attackers demolished 17 more Albanian-owned or managed businesses the following evening. Nexhipi says that after authorities declared a curfew the third evening, attackers burned down two Albanian-owned homes. One belonged to a man working in Switzerland, the other was owned by a lawyer who had agreed to take up the cases of people whose businesses had been torched. Fire inspectors subsequently suggested that the fire had been due to an electrical problem.

Bitola's Social Democratic mayor, Zlatko Vrsakovski, appeared on TV after the first two nights of violence had passed and appealed for calm. Almost three weeks passed before he lifted the nighttime (2300 to 0500) curfew on 20 May.

Nexhipi suspects the real reason for the unrest can be found in Bitola's legacy as a key garrison town of the former Yugoslav People's Army, or JNA, due to Bitola's proximity to the Greek border, 16 kilometers to the south. When the army withdrew to Serbia nearly a decade ago, Nexhipi says the majority of ethnic Serbian JNA officers and their families stayed behind in Bitola. He says they now have Macedonian citizenship and have been active in the past in organizing what he terms "anti-Albanian initiatives and demonstrations." Nexhipi estimates that between 30 and 50 Serb former JNA officers currently reside in Bitola.

"There has been something grave going on Bitola for years. Groups of [Serb] people are at work, conducting operations. So because of all of this, we were afraid when we learned about the murders of the four [policemen] from Bitola. We knew from past experience that whenever anything, clashes or whatever, occur involving the Albanian question in Macedonia or Kosovo, it will be reflected in Bitola. We knew that there would be broken shop windows, that someone would make a show of power toward a symbolic number of people."

Interior Ministry spokesman Stevo Pendarovski told RFE/RL today he has not previously heard the allegations that former JNA officers might be involved in the Bitola unrest. But he suggests there may be a connection if the former officers, rather than retiring from the military, joined Macedonia's security forces:

"I don't see how they could organize the events if they're retired. If they are active, it will be good for all of us here to know what positions they are in now, and to investigate such rumors. It's [more effective] to be in a position to be active, and to be employed formally in the ministries [of Defense or Interior] or in some of our [secret services], and in that way have an impact on that kind of movement, of the rebellion in Bitola."

Vladimir Milcin is executive director of the Macedonian branch of the Open Society Institute, based in Skopje. In a recent essay, he wrote of his own suspicions regarding the Bitola incident:

"There is something smelly in this dim story, something that stinks much more than the burnt shops in the bazaar in Bitola. Power and money are the agent of movement of this death game. [Someone] is encouraging enmity to incite voluntary or violent ethnic cleansing."

Milcin says the aim is to divide Macedonia into ethnically pure regions, enabling partition. He predicts that what is left of Macedonia will not be able to survive as an independent country.

The Open Society Institute chief adds that the Bitola residents involved in the attacks on Albanian businesses were provoked by the fact that, despite an official order for all four caskets containing the remains of the dead policeman to remain sealed, the brother of one of the dead men insisted his coffin be opened. The mourners, he says, were horrified by the sight of a burned body.

Milcin says he is convinced the unrest was organized:

"On the day of the funeral, the state secretary at the Interior Ministry was there, Ljube Boskovski, who has since become [on 13 May] minister of the interior. And he remained [in Bitola] overnight, until the next day. The mayor of Bitola, [Zlatko Vrsakovski], asked police to intervene. The police didn't do anything except protect the house of Mr. Muarem Nexhipi [from PDSh], the deputy minister of health."

Milcin says the police did nothing to stop the violence during the first two nights of unrest and notes the curfew was only introduced on the third day. He says members of a private Macedonian security agency, Kometa, led the mob in the unrest. He accuses Kometa of having very close relations with the nationalist party of Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski, known as VMRO-DPMNE.

"I don't believe that what happened in Bitola [was] something spontaneous. I think that basically, [the incident was] stimulated and supported by some people close to VMRO, to the government."

Interior Ministry spokesman Pendrovski, when asked whether any evidence has been found confirming suspicions that the unrest was organized, says that until now there have been "only rumors:"

"I have heard some rumors, or 'semi-information,' about the so-called Macedonian organizations -- 'Lions' and 'National Front for the Liberation of Macedonia,' or something like that -- that are behind the events [in Bitola]. But until now we have not confirmed anything."

The Lions and the National Front are previously unknown groups which have claimed credit for the attacks. Pendarovski says there are suspicions at senior levels in the Interior Ministry that local police chiefs in Bitola may be close to these secretive groups. But so far, Pendarovski says, investigations of the unrest have not gotten very far -- in part, he says, because the ministry is concentrating its efforts on the fighting around Kumanovo in the north of the country.

"Unfortunately, we've had only four charges brought against four people -- criminal charges -- and all of them, according to our law, are released and can defend themselves [while] being free. And after that it's up to the court in Bitola, the local court in Bitola, to proceed further with criminal investigations."

Milcin of the Open Society Institute says Bitola has been impoverished since 1997, when Albania's TAT pyramid investment scheme went bust, leaving many residents to lose their life savings. Bitola, says Milcin, "is a town which is easily pushed into being involved in events like a pogrom."