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Macedonia: Unity Government Appears Back On Track

Macedonia's fledgling government of national unity appears to be back on track one week after almost collapsing due to a dispute between Macedonian Slav and ethnic Albanian parties over negotiating with fighters of the National Liberation Army. But RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports that fighting continues unabated in the north of the country.

Prague, 30 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- On his second visit to Skopje in 24 hours yesterday, European foreign policy and security chief Javier Solana helped resurrect the broad government of national unity that was formed on 13 May but which has been in danger of disintegrating for the past week.

Macedonia's government faced collapse after the leaders of the two Albanian parties in the coalition met secretly in Kosovo a week ago (23 May) with Ali Ahmeti, the political representative of the insurgent National Liberation Army, or UCK. A senior U.S. diplomat working for the OSCE, Robert Frowick, allegedly facilitated the meeting in which the three ethnic Albanians reached an accord that they said would have secured an end to the fighting and the withdrawal of the UCK fighters.

Macedonian parties in the coalition denounced the agreement and demanded that the leaders of the two Albanian parties do the same. But the two, PDSh's Arben Xhaferi and PDP's Imer Imeri, refused.

Solana found a compromise yesterday, in effect annulling the accord. Coalition leaders met last night and issued a statement saying the status of the agreement with Ahmeti "is no longer relevant." The statement added that only government-elected representatives, rather than UCK members, can make decisions concerning Macedonia's future.

The UCK's stated goals are almost identical with those of the two main Albanian parties in parliament. But the militants accuse the two parties of having failed to end discrimination.

Despite the government's announcement of a temporary cease-fire, low-level fighting continued today just west of the northern city of Kumanovo.

Mortar shells fired by the UCK fell within the city limits for the first time. They struck a tannery and a military barracks housing Belgian soldiers who are part of the logistics team for NATO-led KFOR peacekeepers in Kosovo. One automobile was destroyed but no injuries were reported.

An ethnic Albanian militant commander, Sokoli, is threatening to take the violence into Macedonian-inhabited areas. He told reporters by telephone: "For three weeks now, artillery shells have been raining down on our villages, villages full of civilians. [How] long," he asked, "are we supposed only to watch while helicopter gunships and howitzers shoot up peasant villages?" He added: "From now on, we reserve the right to attack Macedonian sites and not just defend our Albanian villages."

Since the fighting erupted near Kumanovo four weeks ago, Macedonian security forces have repeatedly urged civilians to leave the area. But while thousands have left, the UN estimates between 5,000 and 10,000 are still in their homes. Many say they won't leave because they fear police will beat them. Macedonian military spokemen say the UCK has asked the villagers to remain and is using them as "human shields."

Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski issued a statement last night calling on the residents of the district of Lipkovo, just west of Kumanovo, to leave the area for security reasons. Lipkovo includes the embattled villages of Vaksince, Lojane, Slupcane, Otlja, and Matejce. Boskovski said that those wanting to go to Kosovo could do so without what he called "police formalities" and would be escorted by the International Organization of Migration and NGOs.

In Budapest today, where NATO was holding a ministerial meeting, Solana briefed participants about the outcome of his second round of talks in Skopje.

"I do not want to say that the problem is solved. It is not solved yet. It will take time, but we are taking steps in the right direction to solve it." Solana said that the process of interethnic dialogue has resumed and will proceed "at a rhythm and a pace which is going to be faster than before."

Referring to an announcement by the Macedonian Defense Ministry that it would hold its fire today to enable civilians to flee the battle zone, Solana said the situation is improving.

"The situation is better now. There are buses taking the civilians out of the region, which is more complicated, in a good [example of] cooperation among everybody [who] is engaged -- the OSCE, the organizations which are on the ground. So, I think that we are getting into a better direction, starting from this very moment."

But Foreign Minister Anna Lindh of Sweden, which currently holds the EU's rotating presidency, said that Macedonia must quickly undertake speedy improvements in its policies toward its large Albanian minority.

"We want to have a report, if not by mid-June [then] by the end of June, from the government in FYROM Macedonia to see how many reforms have been implemented, and I can say that is really the firm commitment from the Macedonian government." NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson was optimistic about Macedonia's prospects:

"The scene is now set for the government in Skopje to look forward, and obviously the European Union and NATO will do all they can to help to get over the problem of an insurgency that threatens to undermine and to destroy a fragile democracy in a very critical part of the world."

Meanwhile, the UCK's Ahmeti has told Australian Radio (ABC) that fighting will only end in Macedonia if Macedonian officials meet the militants' demands for equal rights in all spheres of life.

Ahmeti also announced the formation of yet another Albanian insurgent group -- this one allegedly in northwestern Greece. He says the Cameria Liberation Army, or UCC, will fight for the rights of ethnic Albanians in southern Epirus [the area around Ioannina, Igoumenitsa, Preveza, and Arta], where he says one million Albanians live but have no rights.

Experts on Balkan demography say that, while some one million Greek citizens are of Albanian extraction, they are spread out over various Greek districts and islands. With the exception of recent arrivals from Albania, the overwhelming majority are assimilated into Greek society and relatively few speak Albanian.