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GUNFIRE EXCHANGE ON MACEDONIAN-YUGOSLAV BORDER.
Spokesmen for Macedonia's Defense and Interior Ministries said in Skopje on 27 February that the border with Kosovo is quiet following an exchange of machine gun fire lasting about three hours the previous day. Macedonian officials said that Albanian terrorists coming mostly from Kosovo and some Macedonian citizens fired from the Kosovo side of the border at a Macedonian army and police patrol near Tanusevci. The Macedonians returned fire, Reuters reported. Some 100 KFOR troops soon arrived in Debelde on the Kosovo side and imposed a night curfew. A Macedonian Interior Ministry spokesmen said that the Albanians might be from "a new organization called the National Liberation Army. We understand it was formed in Switzerland in 2000, and it could be active in Macedonia in the near future." Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski called the incident "a serious provocation" and criticized the performance of KFOR. He warned that although he wants to end the border tensions "through peaceful and diplomatic means, radical measures are not excluded." He did not elaborate, AP reported.
RUSSIA CALLS FOR BALKAN BORDER GUARANTEES.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on 27 February that the international community should guarantee borders in the region to discourage extremists. The statement noted that "the actions of the gunmen are aimed at provoking a crisis situation and destabilizing the internal political situation in [Macedonia]... The continuation of such a situation threatens the security and stability of the whole region. Russia believes an effective hurdle to extremists actions would be confirmation by the international community of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all the states of the region in question," Reuters reported.
The statement also said that the clashes are aimed at realizing unspecified Albanian nationalist plans. Observers note, however, that no mainstream ethnic Albanian party anywhere in the Balkans calls for setting up a greater Albania as a realistic goal. The Russian call for border guarantees may be an attempt to preclude eventual independence for Kosovo.
Macedonian Defense Ministry spokesman Georgi Trendafilov tells RFE/RL he finds the whole matter of refugees from Tanusevci suspect.
"It's absurd, We could classify it as a scenario for a provocation to create a situation that's quite unreal -- to give the impression that in the Republic of Macedonia some citizens are fleeing as a result of not being treated equally by other citizens -- that's out of the question."
Trendafilov says the Macedonian army and police are trying to ensure that border security is strictly respected. He insists that Macedonian troops have not occupied a single village anywhere in Macedonia's border zone, including Tanusevci. In fact, news reports say the police have not entered Tanusevci for at least six weeks.
Tanusevci is perched high up in a very sparsely populated area of the Skopje Black Mountains (Skopska Crna Gora), which has peaks of over 1,600 meters and stretches along Macedonia's border with Kosovo and into southern Serbia. The village is 24 kilometers from Skopje and four kilometers from the border with Kosovo.
A senior Macedonian Interior Ministry official told RFE/RL that Tanusevci was calm today. The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, says the trouble started in Tanusevci last September when insurgents fired rockets at Macedonian army vehicles. Then about two months ago armed men in uniforms of the "defunct" Kosovo Liberation Army, or UCK, turned up in Tanusevci within sight of the Macedonian army and police patrols.
The Macedonian Interior Ministry official says that a new faction of the former UCK is involved, a group that calls itself the National Liberation Movement. He says this new faction consists partly of "dozens of people" from Tanusevci and partly of Kosovar Albanian residents of Debelde, a village across the border in Kosovo. He also says the shooting around Tanusevci is closely connected with gun-running to ethnic Albanian insurgents in the Presevo Valley of southern Serbia, less than 20 kilometers to the east.
Tanusevci is the native village of a former UCK commander, Xhavit Hasani. Last year, the Macedonian news media reported that Hasani had cleared Tanusevci of many of its residents during the fighting in Kosovo in 1998 and 1999 so that the village could serve as a logistical base and refuge for UCK insurgents.
The Macedonian army subsequently discovered some 1,200 refugees from Kosovo had found refuge in Tanusevci during the NATO air strikes. KFOR detained Hasani last March on a Macedonian warrant and extradited him to Skopje where he was wanted on murder and weapons-smuggling charges. But Hasani paid $100,000 bail and was released and returned to Kosovo the following month, resettling in Viti, some 10 kilometers northwest of Tanusevci.
There has been no independent confirmation that Hasani is directly connected with the latest clashes around the village.
The senior Interior Ministry official says there have not been enough Macedonian soldiers and police in the area. In his words, "we need a lot of people to prevent the penetration of wildness into Macedonia and one of the best penetrating points is the village of Tanusevci."
But the official adds he is not sure that sufficient support exists at the political level in the Macedonian government to deploy more security forces. He says: "We will prepare to do that but nothing [no deployment] without prior political authorization."
Macedonian Defense Ministry spokesman Trendafilov says KFOR must do more to secure the border.
"It's a matter of some 10 days since the first shooting which occurred on 16 February and, according to the Ministry of Defense and the Security Council of the Republic of Macedonia, necessary measures were taken to secure the border. And at present we are insisting that KFOR impose a normal, efficient border regime."
Yesterday's exchange of fire came only hours after insurgents seized a Macedonian television reporter and her two-man camera team who had gone to investigate reports of rebel infiltration from Kosovo. The insurgents briefly held the team at gunpoint, and confiscated their TV camera and mobile telephones before telling them to leave and never come back.
Last Wednesday (21 February), the Macedonian Defense Ministry said that some 200 armed men had crossed from Kosovo into Macedonia near Tanusevci. A KFOR spokesman in Pristina responded that peacekeepers had not seen any armed group crossing into Macedonia.
The following day, the KFOR commander, Italian General Carlo Cabigiosu, visited Skopje for talks with Macedonian leaders. He pledged to step up patrols along the border and to improve contacts with the Macedonian army.
British KFOR spokesman Richard Hatter confirms cooperation with the Macedonian army will be improved.
"We'll look for coordinated operations as authorized in our current mandate."
At a summit of Southeast European leaders in Skopje last week, the presidents of Macedonia and Yugoslavia signed an agreement defining their common border, including the border between Macedonia and Kosovo. Ethnic Albanian leaders in Kosovo responded that they do not recognize elements of the treaty concerning Kosovo's border because, they say, Kosovo's future status remains open.
Clashes empty Macedonia villages.
By Balkans correspondent Paul Wood
Villages on Macedonia's border with Kosovo lie deserted, following Monday's two-hour gun battle between the security forces and ethnic Albanian guerrillas.
Underlining the gravity of the situation which now faces Macedonia, President Boris Trajkovski addressed the nation, appealing for help from Nato and the international community to preserve the republic's stability.
The Macedonian authorities describe the gunmen as mainly Kosovo Albanians, but they are in reality mostly ethnic Albanians holding Macedonian citizenship.
Many can't return to their homes in Macedonia because they fear arrest by the Macedonian police.
Nevertheless, they have dedicated themselves to waging a new separatist struggle inside their home state and they have formed a new organization - the National Liberation Army - to do it.
These latest clashes arise because of the movement of these men, some with weapons, back and forth across the border.
They are comparatively few in number, but fears of a new conflict in Macedonia overshadowed the Balkan summit in Skopje last week, and the Macedonian government says it is a prospect the international community must take seriously.
Both sides have blamed each other for Tuesday's clashes.
Nikolai Dmitrov, a security adviser to the Macedonian president, told the BBC that army units came under fire as they tried to prevent the separatist forces penetrating further into Macedonian territory.
He said the clashes threatened to create inter-ethnic hostility, undermining what he said was years of work by the government to create a tolerant and civil society.
A Western diplomat in the Macedonian capital, Skopje, said both sides were waiting for a response from the international community.
"We may expect sporadic incidents like yesterday's and we cannot predict this will be limited to just one village," he said.
The Macedonia mission of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said it would continue monitoring the border.
Spokesman Harold Schenker said most villages near the border had been deserted by civillians.
"Most of the women, children and the elderly have been persuaded to leave the villages. Most of them have gone to villages in Kosovo," he said.
The Macedonian authorities have previously expressed the hope that they will be spared a Kosovo-syle conflict because ethnic Albanians make up only a third of the population, and are represented in the government.
Analysis: Stirrings of war?
By BBC Balkans correspondent Paul Wood
Smiling disconcertingly, Jakup told me that the Macedonian police had beaten and interrogated him for 52 hours without a break.
He was smiling, he explained, because he was coming to his favourite part of the story: "I told the policeman, 'I will remember your face and someday, you can be sure, we will meet again.'"
We were talking in a safe house in Kosovo for the National Liberation Army (NLA).
This new ethnic Albanian group say most of their members are citizens of Macedonia but also veterans of the Kosovo conflict, having volunteered to fight in the Kosovo Liberation Army.
They say they are unable to return to their homes in Macedonia, fearful of police raids connected with their activities, so they are biding their time in Kosovo, occasionally slipping across the border with their weapons.
The Macedonian security forces try to intercept them - that is apparently how a recent two-hour gun battle began in the village of Tanusevci began.
Although in Macedonia, the village supplied many ethnic Albanian volunteers to fight in the war in Kosovo. It is today a centre for those sympathetic to the NLA.
Macedonia has, so far, escaped the civil war which marked the break up of the old Yugoslav federation. Western diplomats in Skopje say they now expect sporadic clashes rather than all-out conflict.
But the Macedonian Government is warning the international community not to underestimate the danger that escalating violence could destabilise the whole region.
The Macedonians say ethnic Albanian fighters in the Presevo valley in southern Serbia are trying to spread the conflict across the border into Macedonia.
Macedonian officials say this is a deliberate strategy of the group fighting in Presevo, the UC-PBM.
The reality may be far more disturbing for the Macedonian authorities - that this is a largely home-grown group, not one importing violence from Kosovo.
The NLA has shown itself capable of carrying out operations inside Macedonia - doing far more than just crossing the border illegally.
In January, the group claimed responsibility for a mortar attack on a Macedonian police station which killed one officer and wounded three others.
The attack on the police station in western Macedonia was intended by those involved to be the opening shots in a Kosovo-style guerrilla campaign.
A statement from the NLA said the "uniform of the Macedonian occupier would be targeted until the Albanian people were free".
Bitter Albanians rivals
There are, in fact, two Albanian groups recruiting people for an armed struggle in Macedonia.
The first is the National Liberation Army, the second is the Albanian National Army (or Armata Kometare Shqipetare in Albanian) from which less has been heard.
The two groups are bitter rivals.
There is no evidence that either of these two Macedonian groups are part of the same military command as the groups fighting in Presevo, or even that they are co-ordinating their actions in order to bring the Presevo conflict into Macedonia.
But they do have close links and the same aim, which is to see all Albanians living in the same state stretching from southern Serbia, through Macedonia, to Albania itself.
Different to Kosovo
A low intensity guerrilla campaign in Macedonia would be much different to that waged in Kosovo.
The Serbian province was 90% ethnic Albanian and the security forces could not hope to maintain control over large swathes of territory.
In Macedonia, ethnic Albanians are no more than a third of the population and are concentrated in the west.
The international community has also made clear its opposition to any separatist campaign in Macedonia.
Nevertheless, the NLA plans to step up its activities: it is a dangerous situation for a country with such a complex ethnic mix and troubled history and which was the cause of two Balkan wars in the last century.