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Macedonia: Fighting Intensifies Following Impasse In Talks

The Macedonian authorities' rejection last week of the U.S.-EU peace plan has led to a resumption of heavy fighting in and around Tetovo. The upsurge in violence came as U.S. President George W. Bush was visiting the region. In addition, as RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports, Macedonia is accusing Albania of laxity in protecting their common border from incursions by Albanian rebels.

Prague, 24 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Heavy fighting returned to northwestern Macedonia's Tetovo area this week following the Macedonian leadership's rejection of the EU-U.S. drafted peace plan.

A 12-year-old Albanian girl was killed yesterday in Poroj, just north of Tetovo, and a 30-year-old Macedonian man succumbed today to his injuries from yesterday's fighting. At least 33 people were reported injured, including four soldiers and one policeman.

The Associated Press quotes a National Liberation Army (UCK) commander from the Tetovo area -- speaking on condition of anonymity -- as saying today that six rebel fighters and eight ethnic Albanian civilians were killed in yesterday's fighting.

The mayor of Tetovo, Ismail Murtezani, spoke with RFE/RL's Albanian Unit.

"The cease-fire has been broken since Sunday [22 July] and the situation has become very difficult. Now we have war in Tetovo -- and in its environs, especially in the Drenovac neighborhood and around the barracks. There has been shooting without interruption from all kinds of weapons since 11 in the morning [Monday]."

The UCK insurgents moved forward during the day, coming within meters of some positions of the Macedonian security forces and forcing Macedonian troops to withdraw from Tetovo's stadium. Then, in the evening, the UCK repositioned its forces around the ski resort of Popova Sapka -- currently a key Macedonian frontline base. Macedonia's Defense Ministry says that, in addition, large numbers of ethnic Albanian fighters moved into villages along the main road northeast of Tetovo [Neprosteno, Lesok, and Tearce].

A toll station on the Tetovo-Gostivar highway, a key north-south thoroughfare, also came under fire yesterday.

Ethnic Macedonians forced by UCK insurgents to leave their homes in the village of Lesok, near Tetovo, staged a protest in front of the Macedonian parliament in Skopje today. The villagers threw stones at the building and tried unsuccessfully to force their way in.

At the same time, a pro-UCK news agency, Kosovapress, reported last night from Lipkovo near Kumanovo (northeast of Skopje) that Macedonian security forces had set fire to the ethnic Albanian hamlet of Izvor, destroying the village's houses and crops in adjacent fields. Kosovapress says this is the fourth Albanian village in the area to be torched by Macedonian forces.

Defense Minister Vlado Buckovski has warned the rebels that unless they retreat to their previous positions around Tetovo, "we will have no other option than to dislodge them with an offensive." He said: "The Macedonian security forces cannot pull back when the security of people in Tetovo is threatened."

The spokesman of the Army general staff, Colonel Blagoja Markovski, says the UCK has kidnapped more than 20 ethnic Macedonians -- an allegation confirmed by local residents of ethnic Macedonian villages northeast of Tetovo.

"The activities of the Albanian terrorists have resulted in numerous injuries to people in the city of Tetovo. One young girl was killed. At the moment, according to available information, about 22 civilians have been kidnapped at various locations on the terrorists' side.

"The OSCE and EU missions having been informed in advance, it has been decided that the security forces of the Republic of Macedonia will respond to all [attacks] and, in addition, members of the security forces of the Republic of Macedonia have been reinforced in the fighting by artillery and tank units that are deployed in the Tetovo region."

The army general staff spokesman also confirmed the shooting death of a Macedonian soldier near the border with Albania on 21 July. The death occurred during a three-hour gun battle with what Macedonian authorities describe as "a uniformed terrorist group."

"A Macedonian army patrol was deployed in the village of Grekaj, west of the village of Ribnica near the border with the Republic of Albania in a regular mission in the area of the border [zone] under observation. The Albanian terrorists opened fire on the patrol, fatally injuring a soldier, Mile Ginovski, from the Kicevo village of Popolozani."

The incident on the slopes of Mount Korab -- at 2,753 meters the highest mountain in Macedonia and Albania -- took place in an area of isolated Albanian-inhabited hamlets. It was not the first such incident in the area. Macedonian security forces have sighted -- and, on at least one occasion in May, captured -- Albanian arms smugglers who come over the high mountain passes on foot.

But the 21 July incident is believed to be the first time that Macedonian security forces came under attack in the sparsely populated area, and it suggests that the UCK is spreading southwards from Tetovo. The incident also calls into question the Albanian government's ability to stop the UCK from using its territory as a base or safe haven -- despite the Tirana government's repeated public calls for a peaceful solution to the conflict and its insistence that it is not supporting Albanian rebels in Macedonia.

Defense Ministry spokesman Marjan Gjurovski indicated last night that Macedonia has filed a protest note with Albania following the border incident.

"The Defense Ministry of the Republic of Macedonia demands that the government of the Republic of Albania undertakes all necessary measures to safeguard the Macedonian-Albanian border." Gjurovski called on the U.S. and EU mediators, James Pardew and Francois Leotard, to do more than express regret over the resumption of violence.

"We expect the international representatives in Macedonia -- rather than [merely expressing] disappointment -- to take specific measures against the Albanian terrorists' tyranny of violence." Gjurovski did not say what measures he had in mind.

For his part, in interviews with foreign radio stations this week -- VOA and BBC -- Pardew said that talks among the leaders of the country's main Macedonian and Albanian political parties will resume this week. He confirmed that the talks will include discussion of Albanian as a second official language in some areas.

Pardew predicts a solution will probably be reached within the next few days -- provided that the party leaders are able to compromise on key issues such as language. He insists that the U.S.-EU draft peace plan retains Macedonian as the country's primary official language.

U.S. President George W. Bush was in neighboring Kosovo today, where he delivered a pep-talk to American KFOR peacekeepers at Camp Bondsteel, just a few kilometers from the Macedonian border.

Bush called on the Macedonian parties to maintain the cease-fire. And he called on Macedonia's leaders to work with EU envoy Leotard and Ambassador Pardew to overcome the remaining differences in order to achieve "a settlement that will keep Macedonia at peace and on the road to Europe."

Bush also denounced those who are trying to help the insurgents from abroad. In Bush's words, "those here in Kosovo who support the insurgency in Macedonia are hurting the interests of ethnic Albanians throughout the region. The people of Kosovo should focus on Kosovo."