A shootout Monday evening (25 March) between rival Albanian insurgents in a suburb of the majority-Albanian city of Tetovo in Macedonia left at least two dead and five injured and the headquarters of the recently formed Albanian Coordination Council in Macedonia seriously damaged. RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele reports the clash was the most serious so far between demilitarized rebels that have chosen peace and a return to civilian life, and a minority who want to continue to rely on violence to achieve their political aims of a Greater Albania.
Prague, 27 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- An office belonging to Ali Ahmeti, the former political commander of Macedonia's ethnic Albanian insurgents, came under armed attack and was heavily damaged Monday evening (25 March) by dissident rebels.
The office was where Ahmeti was elected just days earlier to head the Albanian Coordination Council in Macedonia, which groups the country's three main political parties -- an event that symbolized Ahmeti's move into mainstream political life. Although the charismatic Ahmeti enjoys considerable popularity among Macedonia's Albanians, he is still perceived by many Macedonians as a terrorist leader.
Several Skopje dailies today quote police as saying that just hours earlier, Ahmeti's headquarters in the mountain village of Sipkovica also came under attack.
After the insurgent National Liberation Army (UCK) and the country's two ethnic Albanian parties agreed last August -- along with the two main Macedonian parliamentary parties -- to a peace deal brokered by the U.S. and the European Union, the UCK disarmed and disbanded in exchange for an amnesty and greater rights for Macedonia's Albanian community.
However, a splinter group of radical rebels who favor a "United Albania" refused to surrender their weapons or disband. They founded the Albanian National Army (AKSh) and vowed to fight on.
Earlier this month, Macedonia's parliament ratified an amnesty that included Ahmeti, who called on dissident rebels to lay down their arms, work for a better Macedonia by implementing the Ohrid peace agreement, and not to impede ethnically mixed police patrols.
The AKSh, led by its "supreme commander," General Hekuran Asllani, and "political high commissioner" Valdet Vardari, denounced Ahmeti as well as the leaders of the mainstream Albanian parties -- Arben Xhaferi, Imer Imeri, and Menduh Thaci -- as being "mercenaries," "traitors," and "shameless collaborators," and of "attempting to emasculate the militant liberation activity and pure national activity of AKSh formations."
The AKSh denounced attempts by Ahmeti to try to persuade the dissident rebels to accept the amnesty and lay down their arms.
Several relatively light firefights erupted between the two factions in the Sar Mountains behind Tetovo in recent weeks. And the continued presence of the AKSh has prevented the return of police patrols to several communities in the Tetovo area, including Mala Recica and Sipkovica.
However, the fighting on the evening of 25 March was more intense and lethal than anything since the fighting between the UCK and the Macedonian security forces ended some seven months ago.
The clash at Mala Recica involved the use of heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Today's edition of the Skopje daily "Dnevnik" says some 100 fighters participated in the battle.
In an interview with RFE/RL's Albanian unit, the mayor of Tetovo, Murtezan Ismail, whose commune includes Mala Recica, expressed fear that the situation could get out of hand.
"I receive news of this event with sorrow because at the moment we don't need a war among us [Albanians]. We need to work out an agreement between the armed and political subjects."
The mayor's views are shared by the two main Albanian political parties in parliament, the Democratic Party of Albanians and the Party for Democratic Prosperity (PPD). Aziz Pollozhani is deputy chairman of the PPD. He said, "We have to find a way to overcome possible misunderstandings and reach an agreement among all Albanians on how to build up [the rights of] Albanians, not solely through the political parties nor just through the executive structure of the former UCK."
NATO forces from the Amber Fox peacekeeping operation were in the vicinity when the shooting erupted and brought in reinforcements to monitor the situation. A NATO spokesman, Craig Ratcliff, denies that the NATO units tried to extract Ahmeti from the shooting, saying that Ahmeti attended a meeting at the shooting site several hours earlier but was not anywhere nearby during the clash. He confirmed that two people were killed and five wounded.
However, AKSh issued a series of statements under the slogan "One Nation, One State -- a United Albania" on its website, alleging four dead, three of them from the UCK, the fourth from AKSh. It says the clashes occurred as AKSh recruits were joining their unit in Mala Recica.
The Albanian- and Macedonian-language media have offered higher death tolls, of anywhere from three to 10 with additional wounded, including civilians living in neighboring homes.
Ratcliff said today NATO "does not believe it is a start of a civil war, or the imaginary spring offensive that is pushed consistently by local television media."
U.S. Ambassador to Macedonia Lawrence Butler denounced the clash today: "We have been very clear in Kosovo, Albania and here in Macedonia that we have no understanding, no tolerance, for anybody who would cause violence."
Ahmeti followers say the fighting erupted when AKSh members tried to free six men from their ranks who were being held in the headquarters of the former UCK. He issued a statement yesterday saying the dissident rebels "after their latest act will be denounced, isolated, and driven out of Albanian areas." Hours before the violence erupted, he had issued a statement warning that anyone trying to hinder the peace process would be held accountable for their deeds.
NATO's ambassador to Macedonia, Claus Vollers, said in his farewell appearance to journalists prior to his departure from Skopje this week that the international community "joins together to strongly condemn the violence perpetrated Monday night." He described the clash as an "act contrary to the interests of all citizens of Macedonia, regardless of their ethnicity."
"Those who continue to promote violence and criminal activity as political means will not be allowed to set the agenda for this, nor will their actions turn Macedonia away from its goal of being a peaceful, stable and prosperous part of modern Europe."