Despite Setback, Albanian Rebels Vow to Continue Fighting
PRISTINA, Yugoslavia, March 27 - Albanian rebels who were driven by Macedonian troops from hilltops surrounding the town of Tetovo vowed Tuesday to fight on, a commander told a Western news agency by phone.
"We are in our positions, and we are waiting. We are ready to defend ourselves," the commander calling himself "Indian" said by phone from the Lipkovo region near the northern border with Kosovo.
"Today, it's a bit quieter, but just because the war has stopped for a day doesn't mean it's over," he said, adding that everything depended on the Macedonian army.
"We are holding our positions and are ready to respond to new attacks," he said, after a weekend offensive by government troops pushed up into hills around Tetovo which had been controlled for two weeks by the self-styled National Liberation Army (NLA).
Macedonian security forces on Sunday launched what they described as a final, two-phase operation against ethnic Albanian rebels in the hills above Tetovo.
Meanwhile the European Union, the United States and NATO have all pledged support to the Macedonian government to put an end to the offensive.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana pledged Europe's solidarity during a visit here Tuesday aimed at convincing ethnic Albanians to choose dialogue rather than armed revolution.
"I wanted to be here ... to show the solidarity of the European Union for the people and the authorities," said Solana, standing next to Arben Xhaferi, leader of the main ethnic Albanian party, the DPA, part of Macedonia's coalition government.
Special police fought hundreds of guerrillas on the outskirts of the northwestern town for almost two weeks before the army was ordered in to tip the scales in a conflict that forced more than 20,000 people from their homes, and sent shockwaves through the region.
And in the former rebel stronghold of Selce in the mountains above Tetovo, the signs were more of a retreat rather than the panic-stricken rout which Skopje boasted of after its troops blasted their way into the village to find just a few terrified civilians.
In Tetovo -- quiet after the sudden conflict -- Solana sought to bolster popular support for Xhaferi, who took a knock after the rebels took up arms and hardline leaders accused the DPA of doing nothing within the ruling coalition to advance the ethnic Albanian minority's cause.
Xhaferi himself was muted in his response to the Macedonian victory, admitting that the sight of security forces shelling ethnic Albanian hill villages above Tetovo had left him "very concerned and very humiliated."
"We did not have a situation of real war conflict, but we had a situation of dialogue with police guns and grenades," he said.
Asked whether he thought he was in a better position to represent the opinions of Macedonia's ethnic Albanian minority than the fighters in the hills, Xhaferi said: "I don't want to make a comparison.
"We have had troubles here and that trouble must be solved through negotiation and not through war," he insisted.
Despite the troops' push into the hills surrounding Tetovo -- for weeks the realm of hardened guerrillas -- many international leaders are still uneasy about the way the rebels melted away before the army offensive Sunday.
"I don't think the battle is anywhere near over or that the crisis is yet resolved but I think we are doing a lot," said US Secretary of State Colin Powell in Washington earlier this week.
President George W. Bush said he would like to "seal off" the northern border of Macedonia "to prevent people and arms from going to the rebels."
"I hope, off course, that the (Macedonian) government is stable, and we're able to seal off the border to prevent people and arms from going to the rebels," Bush said outside the White House.
The United States has about 5,600 troops deployed in neighboring Kosovo as part of a NATO-led peacekeeping force charged with maintaining stability in the violence-torn Yugoslav province.
The comment came two days after Bush issued a stern US condemnation of "violence perpetrated by a small group of extremists determined to destabilize the democratic, multiethnic government of Macedonia."
Bulgaria, Greece, Ukraine and Russia have offered military expertise and material to back a tough line against the rebels, whom Skopje accuses of being troublemakers from Kosovo bent on creating a "Greater Albania."
But Xhaferi, fearful that the government will become too closely associated with its Slavic and Orthodox neighbors -- traditionally hostile to Albanian autonomy -- pressed the case for an alignment with Europe.
"It is not with Russian and Ukrainian helicopters, or with Greek or Ukrainian tanks, that we will make peace. Peace is coming here from Europe," he said, adding that he had asked Solana for a stronger EU presence.
Solana met with NATO Secretary General George Robertson and Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski in Skopje late on Monday.
Robertson praised the Macedonian government for its "commendable restraint, surprising observers who expected him to rebuke Skopje for its use of force against the rebels.
The rebels had reportedly lost six men since the Tetovo offensive opened in mid-March. An ethnic Albanian rebel commander was shot dead in clashes with Serbian forces in southern Serbia despite a ceasefire, a rebel spokesman told AFP Tuesday. The commander of the so-called 'Mjekra' brigade of the Liberation Army for Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac (LAPMB) was killed Monday in clashes around Cerevajka, a village near Presevo, said Jonuz Musliu, head of the rebels' political wing.
"We are not the aggressors in this conflict, we are just defending the interests of a free people claiming its rights," said one rebel commander.
He also remained skeptical of Skopje's promises.
"Dialogue has not yet started, we'll see what happens," he said, stressing that he did not trust Skopje's stated intention of opening talks on ,improving Albanians' rights.
Meanwhile, Macedonia's main opposition ethnic Albanian party announced Sunday it was pulling out of the parli,ament in protest at what it called the "increasingly aggressive" attitude of the army.
The Party for Democratic Prosperity or PDP made the announcement as Skopje launched a ground offensive against rebel positions in the hills above Tetovo.
A PDP statement accused the army of escalating the conflict, causing civilian casualties and destroying villages.
It said it was withdrawing from parliamentary activity in protest. The party has 10 seats in the 120-seat chamber.
PDP leader Imer Imeri on Sunday also called on the ethnic Albanian rebels to lay down their arms and for the government to halt its offensive.
The party called on the other 25 deputies representing the ethnic Albanian community in Macedonia to follow their example.
The Democratic Party for Albanians (DPA), part of the ruling coalition, has 11 deputies, five of whom are ministers. Another four ethnic Albanian deputies are independents.
Belgrade and the rebels signed a NATO-brokered ceasefire on March 12 in a bid to halt the year-long rebel struggle for self-rule in the predominantly ethnic Albanian Presevo Valley of southern Serbia.
Both sides have accused the other of violating the truce, which is designed to open the door to talks on a long-term peace plan for the troubled region.
The clashes took place in a demilitarized buffer zone set up in June 1999 to keep Kosovo's NATO-led peacekeepers apart from Yugoslav troops, but NATO has agreed to a gradual reduction of the area as ties with Belgrade improve and those with the rebels cool.
Macedonia, a former republic of Yugoslavia, is home to an estimated one million Muslims, almost half of the country's population.
Muslim Albanians maintain that the Macedonian government has institutionalized discrimination against them, and they accuse the architects of the current constitution of institutionalizing widespread discrimination against Muslims in schools and in the workplace.
AFP contributed to this report.
Topics: Conflicts And War