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21, April-2001.

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Saturday.

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After the gunmen, fear and suspicion still haunt Macedonian town.

AFP

TETOVO, April 21 (AFP) -

The ethnic Albanian gunmen may be gone, but under the restored calm in the northwest Macedonian town of Tetovo, fear and suspicion simmer as residents wait to see if the rebels will descend from the snow-covered mountains again.

"The guerrillas are broken now, they do not exist in an organised form," said defence ministry spokesman Georgi Trendafilov in the capital Skopje.

"I suppose some of the terrorists changed into civilian clothes, some stayed here, a few went to Kosovo," said Trendafilov, adding that the mountainous Kosovo border, just a few miles (kilometres) north of Tetovo was effectively sealed.

But in the town itself, the conflict and the discontent which provoked it still cast a long shadow over the community, which is predominantly ethnic Albanian.

On the road leading from the edge of Tetovo to the mountain village of Selce, used by the gunmen as their local headquarters, access is blocked to all but locals by police and army checkpoints.

"We think it's finished, but you can't be sure," said one police officer, putting down his assault rifle to crack a painted boiled Easter egg given to the police by local Orthodox Slavs, a minority in the town.

The police share their eggs with journalists, while one of them, an ethnic Serb, takes the opportunity to boast of his exploits fighting with Serb forces in the Bosnian war.

Further down the road, a trio of young Macedonian Slav complain it is not safe for them to walk in the town alone.

"You could get yourself killed," said Nebojsa Simonovski, 18, who says he was knifed last month by a gang of ethnic Albanians.

He said gangs of young Slavs and Albanians have formed, battling each other at football matches and in the streets.

Sitting at a cafe terrace in town, the snowy peaks of the border mountains overhead, a group of young Albanian men said they just wanted to get on with their lives and had no interest in repeating the vicious war in neighbouring Kosovo.

"We are citizens of Macedonia. Kosovo wants one thing, we want another," said one.

But the young men, all of whom refused to give their names, admit that if push comes to shove, they would fight for more rights, such as the university which the government has promised will open in October.

"There's a psychological war going on in Tetovo," said one 22-year-old, who added there can be no solution until the midnight to 5:00 am curfew is lifted. He said Macedonians violated the ceasefire with impunity, while it was strictly enforced for Albanians.

He said he had joined the police the week before the March battle on the edge of Tetovo, but had quit to avoid having to "fire on my brothers".

Their relaxed manner vanishes when an older man stops and joins in the conversation.

"The real terrorists are the Macedonian police who arrest Albanians and beat them up," he said. They young men nod in silence, suddenly distant.

In the mountains, the army is still on high alert, defence spokesman Trendafilov said, while police at checkpoints still flag down motorists on the main road from the capital to Tetovo to check their identity papers.

Trendafilov said a landmine blast across the border in Kosovo earlier this month, which killed a British soldier, may have been a warning from the gunmen to the NATO-led peacekeeping forces, or maybe even "a case of revenge" for their crackdown on arms smuggling across the border.

He said the rebels might be considering switching tactics, focusing on "terrorist attacks" on urban areas.

But in Tetovo, the young Macedonian Simonovski said he still expects war to come.

"I'd fight if it came to it, and if I had a gun," he said.

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