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Macedonia: Five Soldiers Killed As Violence Escalates

Five Macedonian servicemen were killed and seven were injured last night near Tetovo in clashes with Albanian militants. As RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele reports, the surge in violence has already provoked the prime minister to renew his call for a state of war.

Prague, 6 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- For the second time in a month, Macedonian Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski is calling for a state of war.

His spokesman, Antonio Milososki, told reporters in Skopje today that a strong military response is the only way to achieve peace.

"It's clear that the attacks by Albanian terrorists constitute aggression against the Republic of Macedonia. It is clear that the fighting is continuing. But the question is whether the Republic of Macedonia expects to defend itself from these attacks, which threaten the lives of our soldiers."

Milososki says if parliament were to muster the minimum two-thirds majority vote required and declare a state of war, the military could call up all able-bodied men to fight. He called on both Albanian parties in the government to state which side they are on.

Macedonian politicians called for a state of war in early May after a rebel attack killed eight members of the security forces on April 28. However, EU and NATO chiefs persuaded Macedonian leaders to drop the idea on the grounds that it would only escalate the conflict and further alienate the Albanian community.

Last night's violence near Tetovo in the Sar mountains between the villages of Gajre and Sipkovica resulted in five deaths and seven injuries. It was the heaviest casualty toll suffered by the security forces since the April 28 attack.

Milososki says last night's killings began with an attack by the ethnic-Albanian National Liberation Army (UCK) between Gajre and Sipkovica on a vehicle bringing food to security forces. One Macedonian soldier was killed and three injured in the incident. The insurgents then attacked an ambulance under military escort that was on its way to rescue the injured, and killed four more soldiers.

One of the dead soldiers was an ethnic Albanian army sergeant and another was a Macedonian from the southeastern town of Strumica. But the other three dead are reported to have been ethnic Macedonian reservists from the city of Bitola, the hometown of four policemen who were killed in late April. Their funerals unleashed two waves of anti-Albanian night-time violence in which gangs of Macedonians torched over 50 Albanian-owned shops, cafes, and kiosks.

Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski last night called for speedy action to end the insurgency. In his words, "we must act to find a solution because they [the rebels] don't understand the language of dialogue."

And in an interview with RFE/RL, Defense Ministry spokesman Gjeorgji Trendafilov said Macedonia has no choice but to arm itself as fast as possible:

"We are confronted with attempted aggression, attempted occupation of a part of Macedonia's territory. We have to defend our country and ourselves."

Asked to comment on news reports that Macedonia is purchasing 12 Russian and U.S. combat helicopters and four Sukhoi-25 fighter jets, Trendafilov said he would only announce details once the aircraft are delivered to Macedonia.

The Defense Ministry spokesman reiterated the military is determined to stamp out the UCK insurgency.

"We have an alien military force on our territory that has to be destroyed efficiently in any way."

Macedonian forces, after two weeks of fighting in late March, retook Gajre, Sipkovica, and some eight other villages and hamlets west and north of Tetovo. But rather than establishing itself in each of the communities, all of which are ethnically Albanian and most of which have been heavily depopulated since the fighting, the army based itself at a ski resort on Mount Popova Sapka and sent patrols into the area.

Most UCK fighters are believed to have left the Sar mountain range by late March and moved east to the (Skopska Crna Gora/Karadak) hills west of Kumanovo, where fighting erupted in early May. Nevertheless, a few UCK guerillas remained in the Sar mountains and the mayor of Sipkovica recently told RFE/RL that hardly a day has gone by without the sound of gunfire or mortar shells.

Virtually all the residents of several of the most remote mountain villages, such as Vejce and Brodec, fled to Kosovo in March. Residents of larger villages closer to Tetovo have been blocked by security forces for more than a month from traveling to schools, jobs, and shops in Tetovo.

There was also heavy fighting overnight northeast of Skopje in the Lipkovo district near Kumanovo, mainly around the villages of Matejce, Otja, Slupcane, and Orizare, where clashes erupted five weeks ago (May 3) and have continued almost daily ever since.

Macedonian news media said today the city of Kumanovo has run out of drinking water because the rebels have allegedly shot off the supply lines from the hills to the west.