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Macedonia: Tensions Rise As Police Crack Down On Armed Groups

Macedonia has seen a recent string of violent incidents, including the kidnapping of a police officer and bombings in front of government buildings in the capital last week. The government says armed criminal or terrorist groups carried out the attacks and has launched a massive manhunt.

Prague, 2 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Police yesterday set up checkpoints and deployed re-enforcements around several ethnic Albanian villages in the north of Macedonia while army helicopters flew over the area.

Police say they are hunting for the leader of an ethnic Albanian armed group that last week briefly abducted a Macedonian police officer and a civilian.

Some 24 hours after the abduction, on the evening of 28 August, unknown attackers tossed grenades at a government building, a courthouse, and a military barracks in the capital Skopje. No one has yet claimed responsibility but officials said they suspect groups operating in the same area were behind the bombings.

Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski has said the violent acts were carried out by "extreme criminals" and vowed to hunt them down.

The manhunt so far has had no results. The man accused of being behind the abduction, Avdil Jakupi, and some 15 armed men last week managed to flee the police rescue operation.

Jakupi, also known as Commander Chakala, claims he is acting on behalf of the Albanian National Army (AKSH), a shadowy grouping believed to be operating in northern Macedonia as well as southern Serbia and in Kosovo.

The AKSH on its website yesterday issued a 24-hour deadline to security forces, saying they should withdraw from the crisis area around the town of Kumanovo and Lipkovo or face a resumption of heavy fighting. Authorities promptly rejected the ultimatum.

The AKSH opposes the Western-brokered 2001 Ohrid peace agreement in Macedonia and a similar peace deal that ended an ethnic Albanian insurgency in southern Serbia. It says its ultimate goal is creating a "Greater Albania." The UN mission in Kosovo has declared ANA a terrorist group.

Analysts say it is not clear whether armed groups like the one led by Chakala are really part of a larger organized force or are mostly acting on their own.

Local media reports last week said Chakala's group is one of at least three such groups operating in the Kumanovo-Lipkovo area.

Ana Petruseva, a Skopje-based analyst with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, tells RFE/RL that so far there has been no credible evidence that AKSH is an organized force that can pose a serious threat to peace.

"It is very ambiguous; we do not have a clear structure of ANA [AKSH]," she says. "From what we have seen so far we have at least two different factions of ANA. There have been numerous examples when one ANA would claim responsibility for a certain attack and then the other one would say: 'No, no, that's not true, we did it.' So basically you have two websites that they appear on and sometimes they have very different opinions and they claim responsibility for different things. So it's hard to determine."

Guner Ismail, an analyst from the authoritative Skopje-based Forum center for strategic research, said that while AKSH's threats should not be taken too seriously, Macedonian authorities have little doubt the group -- or groups -- have been set up in order to stoke tensions in the region.

"The background of the people who, we are more or less certain, are behind this shows first of all their criminal nature," Ismail says. "The most important thing is that we are talking here about a group of criminals who in their rich criminal biographies have set up connections with security services not only in the region but also further abroad."

Ismail adds that remnants of the regime of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic -- which continue to exist in one form or another throughout the region -- might be implicated in setting up the armed groups.

By stirring up tension, Ismail says, the groups are also seeking to set up their own fiefdoms of lawlessness in order to facilitate cross-border smuggling.

Ismail says police action against the armed groups in the Kumanovo-Lipkovo area has been somewhat hesitant so far for fear stronger measures could damage relations with the local population.

"A wider-scope police operation of the kind that obviously is needed to catch the group that is around the so-called Commander Chakala could have much more serious consequences," Ismail says. "It could damage the trust of the local population, it could spark police action -- in this, Chakala has already obviously succeeded. In other words, making the population start to doubt that in their particular area the authorities are really working to set up standards of a normal civilized state with a rule of law."

Southern Serbia and Kosovo have also seen an upsurge in violence in recent weeks.

Petruseva says that although there is a discernible trend of destabilization in the region, it is still difficult to determine whether the attacks in Macedonia, southern Serbia, and Kosovo are connected.

She says the current security situation in Macedonia cannot in any way compare with that during the ethnic Albanian insurgency two years ago.

"We can say that the situation is relatively stable. What has changed after 2001 is that we have seen a lot of violent armed incidents in the Tetovo area, in the western former crisis area, but it was either criminally motivated [or part of] a lot of fighting between different Albanian gangs," Petruseva says. "It was mainly a clean-up between the Albanians; it was not an ethnic thing. So compared to 2001, the situation is definitely much more stable."

Preserving stability will depend not least on the way security forces carry out the promised crackdown on the armed groups. There have been reports that amid fears of resumed fighting, some local residents have fled the Kumanovo-Lipkovo area.

Some ethnic Albanian parliamentarians were expected to travel later today to the area to try to prevent a further escalation of tensions. But the largest ethnic Albanian opposition party, the Democratic Party of Albanians, rejected the call for mediation, saying a manhunt for one person did not warrant a police clampdown on the entire area.