Macedonia appears to have stepped back from a renewed upsurge in violence after special forces who had been searching for an apparently non-existent mass grave staged a partial withdrawal from an area inhabited by ethnic Albanians. Meanwhile, Albanian gunmen released Macedonians they had seized in retaliation for the arrests of former insurgents. But as RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports, a key session of parliament that has been repeatedly delayed was canceled today following the death of a deputy in a car accident last night.
Prague, 13 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Today's session of parliament had met to conclude its debate and vote on 15 changes to the constitution stipulated by the 13 August Ohrid framework peace accord, to improve the civil rights of Macedonia's large Albanian minority and thus defuse ethnic tensions.
But the speaker of parliament, Stojan Andov, postponed today's session on constitutional changes after Gjorgji Kotevski, a deputy in Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski's VMRO-DPMNE party, died in a car crash near the town of Prilep. Another deputy was injured in the crash and hospitalized.
The debate in parliament is only due to resume after Kotevski's funeral, which may take place as early as tomorrow.
Once it is held, a two-thirds majority is needed to push the changes through the 120-member legislature. The only major party to oppose some of the changes, the ethnic Albanian Party for Democratic Prosperity (PPD), reversed itself yesterday following talks with international mediators and announced that it would vote in favor of the changes.
PPD spokesman Zahir Bekteshi said: "Respecting the peace efforts of the international community and the United States, we agree to the constitutional changes. This decision is binding on all our deputies in parliament. This decision shows that we are determined to live in peace, coexistence, and stability with Macedonians."
Scattered shooting continued today near the northwestern city of Tetovo, although no casualties were reported two days after the worst upsurge in violence since the signing of an internationally brokered peace agreement in Ohrid on 13 August.
On 11 November, ethnic Albanian rebels ambushed and killed three Interior Ministry soldiers and wounded several others near the overwhelmingly Albanian-inhabited village of Trebos, five kilometers east of Tetovo. The officers, members of the elite "Lions" unit, had been traveling in an armored personnel carrier when they happened upon a sandbagged rebel post.
Interior Ministry forces had been engaged in a search by Macedonian security forces for what the authorities say is at least one mass grave of ethnic Macedonians. Despite last month's amnesty of ethnic Albanian rebels, the Macedonian forces detained seven Albanians.
The ethnic Albanian mayor of the nearby village of Dzepciste, Vehbi Ismaili, was incensed: "This sudden entry of Macedonian forces into this area contradicts the Ohrid peace accord and flagrantly undermines peace. It means that someone wants to undermine the attempt by the Albanian side and the international community to resolve the crisis peacefully."
The Albanians responded by taking scores of Macedonians hostage.
A splinter group of the recently disbanded National Liberation Army (UCK) -- calling itself the Albanian National Army (AKSH) -- has claimed responsibility for the killings. The group issued a statement saying it had killed what it termed "Slav paramilitaries masquerading as policemen" and accusing the government of resuming the terror and perceiving war as the only response to Albanian demands.
AKSH called on all ethnic Albanian politicians to abandon Macedonian state structures and announced it would launch "harsh attacks" on "government and paramilitary Slav forces." The rebels denounced the Ohrid agreement as "a waste of time."
The international community has insisted there is no such grave and has repeatedly urged the Macedonian authorities to desist from provoking the Albanians by staging a unilateral search operation. Diplomats say that despite a prior understanding, it failed to coordinate its activities with international monitors from NATO and the OSCE. The OSCE issued a statement yesterday noting it has "repeatedly stressed that any investigation of the alleged mass grave, located in Neprosteno must be planned and carried out in satisfactory security conditions, involving international monitors and appropriate Macedonian expertise."
Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski then deployed several hundred special police, backed by armored personnel carriers, into the hills around Trebos and another predominantly Albanian village, Semsevo, in a bid to force the release of the hostages.
International mediators and NATO troops later succeeded in persuading the Albanians to free their hostages. This, in turn, led to the withdrawal of most of the special forces from the Tetovo area late yesterday.
However, the whole operation hardened suspicion among Western diplomats in Skopje that Boskovski and other hawkish politicians are intent on sabotaging the fragile peace and the changes to the constitution. Once enacted, the changes should improve the status of Macedonia's Albanian community, which makes up nearly a third of the country's 2 million inhabitants.
Boskovski responded by saying, "Macedonia is a sovereign state and [cannot] have the status of a protectorate." And he said the 11 November attack proved that NATO's collection of 3,300 weapons from the UCK after the Ohrid agreement was a farce and that the UCK had gone underground but had not disbanded.
Boskovski's Interior Ministry denied that it had failed to inform the international community, insisting that the search for the alleged mass grave had been discussed with international representatives. But it said that it had refused an offer for NATO troops to participate, as they "are not in charge of the exhumation process."
And the ruling nationalist VMRO-DPMNE issued a statement terming the ambush and hostage-taking as "clearly designed to cover up the truth about the genocide, disappearance, and kidnapping of civilians in Tetovo."
But the co-ruling Social Democrats (SDSM) blamed the upsurge in violence on Georgievski and President Boris Trajkovski for backing the Interior Ministry operation. SDSM accuses the two leaders of "jeopardizing the entire process of stabilizing Macedonia, thus making way for the resurgence of violence and conflict."
Trajkovski yesterday issued an appeal for restraint on all sides, saying "the most important thing is to adopt the constitutional changes as soon as possible and not allow the further spread of the armed conflict and violation of the cease-fire." But the call for calm came only after Trajkovski received telephone calls from U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and the EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana.
And in a similar vein, NATO Ambassador to Macedonia Claus Vollers said the unrest has "only underscored the need for rapid passage of the framework peace agreement and an effective amnesty."