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Macedonia: Fighting Continues Amid Political Squabbling

Fighting continued in northern Macedonia today as government forces shelled a rebel-held village near Kumanovo. At the same time, the European Union's new special representative for Macedonia called for direct negotiations with the ethnic Albanian rebels.

Prague, 27 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The latest fighting in Macedonia is in the village of Nikustak, where several hundred Albanian insurgents are believed to be holed up after having been evacuated with their weapons on 25 June from the village of Aracinovo. The evacuation was arranged by the Macedonian government and facilitated by KFOR peacekeepers.

Army spokesman Blagoje Markovski says the insurgents set a field on fire overnight and then used smoke as cover to attack army positions at Umin Dol, just east of Nikustak. Markovski told Radio Macedonia the security forces are using "all available weapons, including artillery and tanks" against the rebels in Nikustak.

In the Sar Mountains behind Tetovo, the Macedonian military deployed helicopters and two of its four newly acquired Sukhoi-25 ground-attack jets against ethnic Albanian UCK guerillas in the vicinity of the village of Sipkovica.

A monitoring team of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe mission in Macedonia has moved into Aracinovo along with Macedonian security forces. Local news reports from the evacuated village say masked police armed with automatic rifles systematically searched every house in the village, which in peacetime had well over 6,000 residents, 90 percent of them Albanians. Rebels of the insurgent National Liberation Army, or UCK, held the village for 17 days. Aracinovo is only 10 kilometers from Skopje.

The EU's newly appointed, first-ever permanent representative in Macedonia, former French Defense Minister Francois Leotard, today urged the Macedonian government to hold direct talks with ethnic Albanian rebels.

Leotard told French radio (Europe No. 1) today: "The Macedonian government must talk with the leaders of the guerrillas so that a consensus can be found and peace can be implemented."

The call seems to mark a dramatic about-face for the EU, although it is not yet clear if Leotard's remarks reflect his personal opinion or an overall EU sentiment. European Union foreign affairs chiefs Javier Solana and Chris Patten have repeatedly ruled out negotiating with the UCK. NATO, by contrast, has been more flexible in suggesting the need to keep all communications channels open.

For its part, the Macedonian government has steadfastly refused to hold direct discussions with the UCK on the grounds that the rebels are "terrorists."

Leotard says one of his first tasks will be to reassure Macedonian authorities that "they can join a Europe of shared values while preserving their territorial integrity" by drafting a constitution "that recognizes everyone's rights."

In a televised speech yesterday, President Boris Trajkovski called for strength, calm, and unity.

"History will remember that, [when] faced with evil, the citizens of Macedonia demonstrated patience and diplomacy, choosing the path of peace."

Trajkovski defended the evacuation of the UCK from Aracinovo, saying it was part of a policy of "eliminating the terrorists form Macedonia's territory." Trajkovski noted that the UCK occupation of Aracinovo had "posed an immediate threat to the city of Skopje, to the vital facilities in and around the city."

Trajkovski said the success of the withdrawal "has intimidated certain internal forces at all state levels" who, he said, "took extremely unacceptable measures with the aim of preventing implementation of the [peace] plan, with the ultimate goal of causing domestic unrest through a large-scale conflict." That was a reference to Monday night's demonstration in front of parliament and the organized roadblocks around Aracinovo intended to obstruct the UCK evacuation.

As Trajkovski put it: "All those who were destroying and wrecking the Macedonian Assembly [building] are ruining our state [and risking] civil war."

But the pro-government Skopje daily "Nova Makedonija" today warned Trajkovski that public tolerance is at its limit. It wrote: "Presidents have to be supported, but he [Trajkovski] should understand that the patience of the people is not indefinite."

The independent daily "Dnevnik" took a slightly different stance, saying today that since the 25 June violent demonstrations, "Macedonian citizens have no alternative to the present crisis except a peaceful solution." The paper warned that the "logic of war will lead to civil war and the disappearance of Macedonia as a state."

In a television interview last, night Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski expressed frustration that the talks between Macedonian and Albanian political leaders have been taking place even as the fighting continues.

Georgievski called this a "tremendous mistake," saying: "One really gets the impression that we have been blackmailed -- the terrorists appear to be achieving their goal and demonstrating that they can bring about political changes by shooting."

Georgievski said he "certainly [has] understanding for the revolt of those citizens who gathered peacefully" in response to what happened at Aracinovo. But he says he has "nothing to say" to those who attacked the Macedonian parliament, abused the Macedonian flag, destroyed police vehicles, and broke windows.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher last night used stronger language to denounce the violent protests at the parliament building: "We urge all citizens of Macedonia to respect the law, to remain peaceful. This is not the time for violent demonstrations or for mob action."

The U.S. State Department and the British Foreign Office are warning their citizens not to travel to Macedonia and urging those already in the country to consider leaving. The State Department issued a statement last night noting "an increase in acts of intimidation and violence against American citizens in Macedonia."