DEBELDE, Yugoslavia, Feb 28 (AFP) - Calling itself the Army for National Liberation, a new group of ethnic Albanian gunmen has sprung up on Kosovo's borders, this time taking control of a village in the mountains of northern Macedonia.
The group's name in Albanian is UCK, the same initials as the former Kosovo Liberation Army which fought Slobodan Milosevic in the Serbian province before NATO intervened to pound Yugoslav forces.
Their insignia is slightly different from the disbanded Kosovo UCK, but the similarities with the ex-rebels and with another armed Albanian group operating in a buffer zone on Serbia's nearby boundary with Kosovo are sending shivers down the spine of the Macedonian government.
On Monday the group, which claims to fight for Macedonia's Albanians -- who make up a quarter of the country's two million people -- battled Macedonian troops near their stronghold village of Tanusevci.
Skopje said its police forces have been unable to enter the village for more than 45 days and had still not dared go back in on Tuesday.
In the village of Debelde across the border in Kosovo, several hundred villagers have fled Tanusevci seeking refuge from what they described as constant harassment by police and troops, as well the murder of a local man, which they blame on Macedonian troops.
But many give blank looks when asked about the new UCK, evidently under instructions not to talk to outsiders about the mysterious group.
While distinct from its former Kosovo namesake, the UCK counts among its fighters ex-combatants from the Kosovo guerrilla army, according to a rebel questioned by AFP at the border.
"Many Macedonian Albanians fought in Kosovo," the uniformed fighter said, displaying his insignia emblazoned with the Albanian eagle on a traditional red background. He said he too had taken on the Serbs in Kosovo.
"We have had to take up arms to defend our rights," said the gunman, aged around 30.
Although Skopje has chided KFOR for allegedly allowing gunmen to cross the border into Macedonia, the fighter said he was from Tanusevci.
A KFOR official said Tuesday that the peacekeepers had cautioned Skopje not to overreact to the crisis and provoke a backlash, which could destabilise the region.
Around 450 inhabitants have fled the village this month, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR.
"We cannot let the Macedonian army kill our children," the gunman said. "We've had enough of injustice. Some Albanians have had no identity cards for 15 or 20 years," he said.
"We don't want a greater Albania, we just want to live in peace... If we are guaranteed the same rights we'll lay down our weapons immediately."
But he warned that if the Macedonian security forces tried to enter the village "it will be their cemetery."
Macedonia has played down the presence of the gunmen, and stressed that they enjoy no political support.
The vice president of the Albanian Democratic Party (DPA) in Skopje condemned the violence and called on Albanians to settle their disputes through politics, not war.
Meduh Taci, whose DPA is a member of the government and the main party representing the country's ethnic Albanians, said: "There are two ways of solving the situation on the northern border.
"One is to use all political means available, the second is that each state and government exerts its authority over its own territory".
Access to the village of Tanusevci, just 30 kilometres (18 miles) north of the capital, is blocked by security forces. A Macedonian television crew that managed to enter two weeks ago was briefly held by the rebels.
A member of the cabinet of President Boris Trajkovski said Tuesday it was "not secure for Macedonian police to enter the village," especially after a recent attack, claimed by the rebels, on a police station near Tetovo killed one officer and injured three others.
"We are not sure who is in the village, because for more than 45 days the police have not been in Tanusevci," the official said.
"That is why we are surprised by statements by some people that they left Macedonia because of the behaviour of Macedonian police and military", the official said.
"It is our constitutional duty to secure our territory," he said.
"But we do not want to ruin what we have built these past 10 years" since Macedonia became the only member of the former Socialist Yugoslavia to exit the federation peacefully.