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NATO: Robertson Visits Macedonia, Albanians Try To Organize National Council

NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson was in Skopje today for talks with Macedonian leaders that mainly focused on progress in Macedonia's action plan for joining NATO. Robertson's visit coincides with an ongoing public discussion on granting amnesty to ethnic Albanians who participated in last year's rebellion. As RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele reports, the former rebels' commander is now trying to establish a coordinating council that would include representatives of three ethnic Albanian political parties.

Prague, 8 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Macedonia today formally requested that NATO extend the mandate of its peacekeeping forces in Macedonia for another three months.

Last night, on arrival in Skopje, NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson said NATO's governing council will be glad to extend the mandate of the German-led force, known as "Amber Fox."

While Macedonia's increasingly warm relationship with NATO was the main topic of discussion in Robertson's talks with Macedonian leaders today, he made it clear he had also come to review Macedonia's progress to date in stabilizing the situation since last year's uprising by ethnic Albanian insurgents of the since disbanded National Liberation Army (UCK).

"The political situation is becoming clearer, and I strongly congratulate the Macedonian people and especially the president for the progress that has been made."

Robertson said "Macedonia can be united and avoid violence."

Robertson specifically called for early elections to ensure lasting stabilization and economic growth. And he said he would be pressing the government to see that an amnesty law is passed, as he put it, "in order to get equality, to ensure justice and to make sure that everybody knows where they stand."

Meanwhile, former UCK political commander Ali Ahmeti remains something of a hostage, holed up in the Sar Mountains village of Sipkovica. Aides say he received a delegation of Western diplomats yesterday at his mountain retreat.

Ahmeti's isolation could change later this month with passage of an amnesty law that is currently being drafted. Ahmeti has insisted in recent interviews that the amnesty would also apply to him.

He told the "Frankfurter Rundschau" this week that "without me and my staff, there would have been attacks on buses and train stations." In the end, he noted, of the Macedonians who were killed, "almost all were policemen and soldiers."

During last year's armed conflict, Ahmeti flitted about back and forth between the Sar Mountains, Kosovo, and the Karadak range near Kumanovo.

Now, however, with a shaky peace and the recent establishment of ethnically mixed police patrols in at least a fraction of the formerly rebel-held villages, Ahmeti appears to be cornered -- unable to visit the capital, Skopje, or his native village near Kicevo, let alone his wife and children in Switzerland. Swiss authorities declared him a terrorist last year and banned him from the country.

Ahmeti has political ambitions. Last month, he invited the leaders of three Albanian parties, two of which are in parliament and in the grand coalition government, to appoint two delegates to an Albanian National Council that would coordinate activities of Macedonia's Albanian minority. Albanians constitute nearly one-third of Macedonia's population of some two million.

In his letter of invitation, he noted the need for preserving political pluralism but said since the left-wing and centrist Macedonian parties are "pragmatically anti-Albanian, then the need for Albanians to form a national united political body is inevitable, among other things to work for the rights of Albanians in Macedonia until conditions are established to overcome the challenges of romantic nationalism in this country, which at present is linked to anti-Albanian chauvinism."

Ahmeti had asked that three parties each nominate two candidates by 20 January.

A small party affiliated with the UCK, Kastriot Haxhirezha's National Democratic Party (PDK), which is not in parliament, and the biggest Albanian party in Macedonia, Arben Xhaferi's Democratic Party of Albanians (PDSh), nominated members to the council even before Ahmeti issued his letter of invitation.

Imer Imeri's Party of Democratic Prosperity (PPD), which has been losing support in recent years to PDSh, is divided over the nominations.

PPD chairman Imeri said last night in an interview with RFE/RL that he has nominated two representatives to the council -- Abdylhadi Vejseli and Ismet Ramadani. But he insisted that he, Xhaferi, and Haxhirexha, as party leaders, will have the last word.

"Although the party leaders will not be present in the council, they'll play an important and constructive role. Through their authority, they'll help the council with its work."

However, the party's secretary, Muhamet Halili, says Imeri's nominations are illegitimate.

"We need another meeting of our party, and [Imeri] has to inform us about his proposals. As members of the presidency of the party, we will accept or reject his proposals. For the moment, we don't have any proposals."

The PDSh's Xhaferi spoke to RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service today:

"Time is being wasted. Objections are being made that are not in accord with the concept of the council. [Ahmeti's] aim is to create some harmony among different views of political parties. So the designated people there should be persons who can move the political process forward and not ones who can put obstacles in the way. The aim is also to create a unifying strategy and a common policy, especially before the elections."

Ahmeti told one of Macedonia's Albanian language dailies, "Fakti," that he had not set any conditions beyond insisting on "character and quality for every member of the council." He told the paper the council should serve as a bridge between nationalists and moderates in the Albanian community and thus prevent the nationalists from confronting the Macedonians.

The Macedonian news media has been speculating about possible motives for Ahmeti's council. One interpretation is that it is actually an attempt by the Western community to control the Albanian side's demands, particularly in the event of a further split between the two main Macedonian parties -- the nationalists (VMRO-DPMNE) and the Social Democrats (SDSM).

Another interpretation is that Ahmeti is trying to put himself forward as the leader of Albanians in Macedonia. Still others suggest it is an electoral move to save the weaker of the two Albanian parties from failing to get into parliament in the next elections, sometime later this year.

In an interview with the Macedonian news magazine "Kapital" in late December, Ahmeti blamed "irresponsible persons who carry negative messages of peace" for the ongoing shootings. He declined to blame former UCK insurgents, saying "we are all citizens of the Republic of Macedonia, and we are all accomplices in that reality."

He said there is injustice by the Albanians directed toward the Macedonians just as there is Macedonian injustice toward the Albanians. Ahmeti revealed that the UCK had suffered 64 dead and that 35 Albanian civilians had also been killed in more than six months of fighting. He credited the speedy engagement of the international community with having "avoided the worst."

Macedonian Justice Minister Hixhet Mehmeti, an Albanian, has formed a working group to draft an amnesty bill. In addition to lawmakers, the working group includes representatives of NATO, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the European Union, and the U.S. embassy in Skopje.

"What does the amnesty law mean? It means no one will be charged. And in the cases of those who have been accused, charges against them will be dropped and those still in custody will be released."

Mehmeti says the bill is intended to apply not only to several thousand former insurgents of the ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army. It will also apply to some 500 Albanians and Macedonians who avoided military service during last year's uprising, either as draft dodgers or deserters.

Memeti says issues still to be resolved include the starting date for when the amnesty would apply. In other words, would it start with the rebel attack 22 January of last year on a police station in Tearce, in which one policeman was killed and two injured? Or would it start with the more violent rebellion in the northern border village of Tanusevci in February and early March? Or with the battle for the Ottoman fortress overlooking Tetovo in mid-March, when the Macedonian army began using heavy artillery against the rebels?