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Macedonia: Police Deploys Joint Patrols In Former UCK Bastions

Macedonia has deployed ethnically mixed police patrols to two former insurgent strongholds in another move toward stabilization. The deployment comes more than seven months after fighting between Albanian rebels and Macedonian security forces ended.

Prague, 3 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In full view of international observers, ethnically integrated Macedonian police patrols entered two large Albanian-inhabited villages yesterday.

The two villages, Sipkovica in the Sar mountains near Tetovo and Slupcane near Kumanovo, were the scene of heavy-artillery assaults and aerial bombardment last year by Macedonian security forces.

The police patrols were greeted in both villages by Albanian flags.

Reporters who witnessed the arrival of the joint patrols in Sipkovica say the police made a point of avoiding the side street where the former political commander of the disbanded National Liberation Army (UCK), Ali Ahmeti, is based.

Ahmeti was recently made head of the Albanian Coordination Council in Macedonia, which groups the country's three main ethnic Albanian political parties. He narrowly escaped a gun battle between rival Albanian factions in nearby Mala Recica last week.

According to today's edition of the Skopje daily "Vest," he has applied for citizenship, a personal identity card, and a Macedonian passport in a bid to reintegrate himself and legalize his status. Ahmeti spent many years abroad, in Switzerland and Kosovo.

Husamedin Halili is the prefect of Lipkovo district, where Slupcane is located.

"The police entered the last village [in the district], the village of Slupcane. So the deployment of multiethnic police has now been completed throughout the district of Lipkovo. But they have yet to enter some other villages due to the presence of mine fields. As a result, international representatives still cannot guarantee security there."

Halili says the local population in this area is committed to peace and determined to implement the Ohrid agreement that brought an end to last year's fighting.

Kjell Henninen, an observer in Sipkovica from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), says the goodwill of the inhabitants bodes well for peace. He says what is now needed is a re-establishment of confidence between the Albanian and Macedonian communities to enable the reconstruction of the region.

Government "crisis situation" spokesman Zoran Tanevski says there were no incidents in Sipkovica or Slupcane during yesterday's patrols. He says demining teams are expected to clear the areas and create conditions for the return of displaced persons.

"The crisis-management center is working with the ministries of defense and interior. The priorities are fixing up residential housing and related facilities, roads, and farmland."

Tanevski says the security forces have restored authority in 80 percent of some 140 villages and hamlets that were under UCK control.

The EU's special envoy to Macedonia, Alain le Roy, says the process of re-establishing control in the formerly rebel-held areas is not over, but he says the return of police to Sipkovica and Slupcane "has symbolic value and marks considerable progress."

The OSCE today praised the police deployment as "a victory for peace and reconciliation." The OSCE spokesman in Skopje, Florin Pasnicu, says the move "helps pave the way for the people and government to address other pressing issues such as reconciliation, return of displaced people, improvement of the humanitarian situation, and of the overall economic situation."

Pasnicu says that "The peaceful return of multiethnic police demonstrates clearly that those who work in favor of the [Ohrid] Agreement and who reject violence are not only supported fully by the international community, but also by the citizens of these regions, who clearly wish only for peace and a return to normal life."

Isolated gunfire and explosions continue to be reported in three key areas of fighting last year -- the Sar mountains above Tetovo, the village of Radusa on the Kosovo border, and the Karadak hills west of Kumanovo. To what extent these are intra-Albanian conflicts or else attempts by each side to provoke the other is unclear.

Albanians are believed to make up nearly one-third of Macedonia's two million inhabitants. The UCK uprising last year was intended to force the government to grant equal rights in all walks of life to the Albanian minority. The Ohrid peace accord reached last August under U.S. and EU mediation provided for constitutional changes to improve civil rights.

Meanwhile, Macedonian authorities have revived their allegations from last September that some 500,000 illegally held weapons were imported into Macedonia over the last 10 years. They say that 60 percent of them were brought in from Albania during unrest there in 1997 and are now in the hands of members of the Macedonian and Albanian communities.

The UCK rebels handed over some 4,000 weapons to NATO-led peacekeepers last September. The Macedonian government has proposed a bill which provides for a voluntary and anonymous handover of weapons over a 45-day period. The Social Democrats, however, want a three-month grace period before prison terms of up to 10 years would take effect for those who fail to surrender their illegally held weapons voluntarily.