Macedonia is planning a significant increase in its fleet of attack aircraft, while continuing to make full use of its recent purchase of helicopter gunships in targeting Albanian militants in civilian-inhabited villages west of Kumanovo. As RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports, the Macedonian news media report a build-up of Albanian militants in Albania who intend to open a third front in western Macedonia.
Prague, 5 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Fighting eased for a second day in Macedonia's Lipkovo district, west of Kumanovo. Why the Macedonian security forces have paused in their offensive against ethnic Albanian rebels, however, is not clear.
In a statement published yesterday, a commander of the ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army (UCK), who goes by the name Sokoli, threatened to extend the conflict to the capital, Skopje, and to the northern city of Kumanovo. He also warned that attacks would be launched on industrial targets -- including the airport and a refinery located in between the two cities -- if the assault on the Lipkovo villages continues.
In an interview yesterday evening with RFE/RL's Albanian unit, Sokoli denounced Macedonian security forces for what he said was violating the 1949 Geneva Convention on the protection of civilians in time of war by striking civilian targets around Lipkovo. As a result, Sokoli says, the UCK will expand the war to new areas:
"There will be a new front in the Sar and in other parts [of Macedonia], because to date Macedonia has not shown any willingness to consider Albanian political demands. They talk all the time about dialogue, but there is no dialogue."
Macedonian authorities deny that they are targeting civilians and have accused the UCK of using civilians as human shields. Thousands of civilians have refused to leave the area because they say they fear attacks by the police.
The Sar mountain range, which in places surpasses 2,700 meters in height, stretches some 60 kilometers along Macedonia's frontier with Kosovo, from their common border with Albania northeastward to the Kacanik gorge. So far, the fighting in the Sar has been limited to the central part of the range, encompassing only about 10 villages.
The daily "Dnevnik" and a private Skopje television station (Sitel) today quote Macedonian police as having sighted some 100 fighters -- some of them allegedly veterans of the conflict that just ended in southern Serbia's Presevo Valley -- who have gathered in east-central Albania and are poised to enter Macedonia to open a third front, in addition to Tetovo and Lipkovo, around the town of Debar.
"Dnevnik" reports that the fighters are grouping at two points -- Maqellar, located 10 kilometers northwest of Debar, and Bulqiza, some 25 kilometers to the town's west. They are allegedly under the command of Flamur Ame, who has been wanted in Macedonia since last September for attempted murder.
To date, all the clashes in the three-month-old conflict have been within 20 kilometers of Macedonia's border with Kosovo -- and far to the north of Debar. The chief of the UCK's general staff, Gezim Ostreni, is from Debar.
The Albanian government has repeatedly insisted it opposes the use of violence to destabilize Macedonia.
Kosovo television on 3 June broadcast a statement by UCK political representative Ali Ahmeti denying he told Australian radio last week that he is establishing an Albanian insurgent force in northwestern Greece. The alleged threat was taken seriously by Greece's Foreign Ministry and security forces. In his televised remarks, Ahmeti dismissed the reports as "propaganda by those wanting to demonize the UCK and Albanians in Macedonia."
At yesterday's signing ceremony in Skopje of a Macedonian-Yugoslav defense cooperation treaty, Macedonian Defense Minister Vlado Buckovski reiterated his declared intention of finding a peaceful solution to the conflict:
"We and our friends from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia support a peaceful resolution of the crisis, using political means." However, Buckovski added: "At the same time, we support using force in facing terrorism."
Regardless of how Skopje plans to resolve the current conflict, it intends to beef up its military, particularly its air force. An article today in "Dnevnik" -- which has ties to Buckovski's Social Democratic Party (SDSM) -- announced Macedonia's air force (VV) is purchasing 12 battle helicopters and four fighter jets.
"Dnevnik" reports that the purchases include two Russian Ka-52 Alligator scout-attack helicopters. The helicopters are armed with machine guns, air-to-ground missiles, anti-aircraft missiles, and either anti-tank missiles or 80mm or 120 mm rockets. Also on the shopping list are four Mi-24 assault/gunship/anti-tank helicopters and six U.S. Bell 212 Huey multirole helicopters, which can be armed with machine guns, rockets, air-to-surface missiles, and TOW anti-tank missiles.
In addition, "Dnevnik" says Macedonia will receive four Sukhoi-25 ground attack jets by 15 June. These can be armed with laser-guided rockets, bombs, and anti-armor missiles.
The paper says the authorities are also considering purchasing T-84 tanks, armored personnel carriers, and rocket systems.
Macedonia's 700-man air force currently has a modest fleet of several aging MiG-17 troop transporter/gunships and a small number of Yugoslav- and Czechoslovak-made airplanes. The fleet was expanded in March with the delivery of four Mi-8 troop transport helicopters and two Russian-made Mi-24 helicopter gunships.
Macedonia's defense budget, which last year amounted to $77 million, will soar this year in light of the aircraft purchases and the daily clashes through most of March and again since early May.
The independent Skopje daily "Utrinski Vesnik" today accused Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski of favoring a military rather than political approach to the conflict. Such a strategy, the paper said, would trigger the territorial breakup of Macedonia and the loss of the unified Macedonian nature of the state.
The pro-government daily "Nova Makedonia" said that almost all the calls for political dialogue address specifically Albanian concerns, and that the Macedonian state and people are getting nothing in return. The daily concluded: "If Macedonians are willing to approve certain political concessions to Albanians, the Albanians must provide firm guarantees for the survival of the [Macedonian] state and nation."