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Smoke rises from the ethnically mixed village of Matejce during shelling May 28, 2001 as Macedonian forces continue their offensive against ethnic Albanian rebels. The Macedonian army made a concerted attempt to retake the village of Matejce from ethnic Albanian guerrillas and continued heavy bombardment of other frontline villages. REUTERS/Radu Sigheti
Macedonian soldiers sit atop an APC on the motorway to the Kumanovo area May 28, 2001 where the Macedonian forces say they had retaken control of the northern ethnicaly mixed Matejce village from ethnic Albanian guerrillas, but the rebels denied the claim. Matejce is one of a dozen villages under rebel control around 40 km (25 miles) northeast of capital Skopje. REUTERS/Ognen Teofilovski
The Albanian fund-raising machine.
The three soberly-dressed Albanians were being over-modest.
In a rare public appearance, they told the Geneva press corps they were "representatives of the Macedonian community in Switzerland".
In fact we were in the presence of some of the key political and financial backers of the ethnic Albanian rebels fighting for greater rights for Macedonia's large Albanian minority. Fazli Veliu is a 55-year-old Albanian who has lived in the German-speaking part of Switzerland for the past 20 years.
He describes himself as a "manual worker", although he is referred to in the Swiss and German newspapers as a journalist and writer.
Swiss Albanians say the money is for food and medicine for displaced people
What is certain is that he is a key figure in the Albanian diaspora living in Switzerland.
He is a founding member of the Kosovo Liberation Army and the current president of the People's Movement of Kosovo abroad.
This movement has helped channel money from Albanians world-wide to the rebels of the Kosovo Liberation Army for their fight against the Serbs.
And now it appears they are bankrolling the Albanian cause in Macedonia.
The head of fund-raising for the National Liberation Army, Vaxhid Sedjiu, does not dispute the Albanian community in Switzerland is raising funds.
"We have to collect money for food and medicines," he says.
"The Macedonian Government is not helping villagers whose homes have been razed to the ground".
It is almost impossible to prove that the money raised is being used to fund illegal arms sales to the rebels in Macedonia
Swiss police spokeswoman Daniele Bersier But putting a figure on the amount of money raised is more difficult.
"The Swiss cantonal system means it is impossible to say precisely how much overall we have collected," he says.
He refused to say whether donations added up to thousands or tens of thousands of Swiss francs.
But close observers of the Albanian community have been doing the maths.
Albanian accounts supporting the Kosovo Liberation Army were closed
Nefail Maliqi, correspondent for the Swiss-based Albanian newspaper, Bota Sot, says around 40,000 Swiss francs ($22,000) were raised during a two hour rally in front of the UN buildings in March.
His paper places regular adverts for fund-raising parties and more than a dozen are held each weekend.
With 200,000 Albanians living in Switzerland - 45,000 of them from Macedonia - that adds up to a lot of financial backing.
According to Mr Maliqi, the Albanian community has learnt its lesson from similar fund-raising initiatives during the Kosovo conflict.
The Swiss authorities blocked a number of bank accounts, suspecting they were being used to finance illicit arms trafficking.
The Albanians have become more "vigilant", says Mr Maliqi.
"They either don't want to embarrass their Swiss hosts or they don't want to run the risk of a cash flow problem".
The brutality shown by the Macedonian government is unacceptable and in breach of UN conventions
Musa Xhaferi National Liberation Army This time round they are not publishing bank account numbers in the local papers, nor is there a so called voluntary 3% tax, levied on the Albanian diaspora during the Kosovo conflict.
Instead donations, collected "privately and spontaneously" are taken to Kosovo and Macedonia by personal couriers.
It is an offence in Switzerland to collect money to buy weapons.
But Daniele Bersier, spokeswoman at the Swiss police department, says "it is almost impossible to prove that the money raised is being used to fund illegal arms sales to the rebels in Macedonia".
Since the ethnic Albanian rebels locked arms with the Macedonian army in February, the Swiss have taken no action against those collecting money in Switzerland.
Switzerland, like other western governments, sees the ethnic Albanians as terrorists, and their insurgency as unjustified.
The ethnic Albanians wanting greater rights in Macedonia are not receiving the international support their brothers received during the Kosovo conflict.
"The brutality shown by the Macedonian government is unacceptable and in breach of UN conventions," complains Musa Xhaferi, the overseas representative of the National Liberation Army.
It is an opinion which strikes a chord with the massive Albanian diaspora in Switzerland.
But it is not a view shared by the government or the UN.
Civilians flee Macedonia battles, as fighting spreads and Solana jets in.
ARACINOVO, Macedonia, May 28 (AFP) -
Fierce fighting continued to spread in Macedonia on Monday, as the European Union's foreign policy supremo flew in to help find a solution to the crisis in the Balkan country.
Hundreds of villagers fled their homes as ethnic Albanian guerrillas continued attacking security force positions, firing mortar shells into the main northern town of Kumanovo for the first time, according to Macedonian and NATO officers.
"Terrorists are shooting at our positions from Otlja, Slupcane and Orizare. Macedonian forces are responding with artillery, tanks and helicopters," army spokesman Colonel Blagoja Markovski said.
The European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said he would try to seek a solution to the three-month old conflict during his latest visit.
"I came to talk with the leaders of the different political formations to see how we can resume the political dialogue which I think is very important for the country," Solana said on his arrival in the Macedonian capital.
Solana, who has visited the conflict-wracked country several times in recent months, held talks with President Boris Trajkovski, Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski and other key party leaders.
Solana gave his backing to Georgievski's government of national unity, and urged it to press ahead with discussions on increased minority rights in order to defuse Macedonia's ethnic tensions and isolate extremists.
His stance was backed by NATO leaders meeting in Budapest, where Secretary General George Robertson said: "There should be no place at the negotiating table for those who prefer the bullet to the ballot box."
US Secretary of State Colin Powell, flying to Budapest after a tour of Africa, said he expected the NATO ministers to "encourage the government of Macedonia to move more aggressively on reconciliation" with its ethnic Albanian minority.
Solana's latest visit came after fierce fighting erupted in the north of the country, as the army responded to an ethnic Albanian guerrilla counter-attack with renewed shelling of rebel-held villages.
Intensive artillery battles could be heard in the area around Matejce and Slupcane, which have been held by guerrillas of the self-styled National Liberation army (NLA) since May 3.
On Monday for the first time rebel mortar shells landed in the northern town of Kumanovo, Markovski said.
Two shells fell near an army barracks shared by the Macedonian army and a Belgian supply unit of Kosovo's NATO-led peacekeeping force, but no troops were hurt.
"No-one was injured, but we were shaken up," Belgian army Major Eddy Custine told AFP.
Markovski said that around 600 civilians had managed to escape from the frontline villages, hailing this as a "big success" for the government's evacuation plan, but warned that it was not yet safe for the International Committee of the Red Cross to send teams into the area.
At least 500 people, many perched on tractors or in other vehicles, headed from the hamlets and villages in northern Macedonia south towards Aracinovo, an AFP reporter at the scene said.
Civilians, among them a large number of women and children, said they had left their homes in the ethnic Albanian-populated hamlet of Ropalce, near Matejce, where clashes broke out early Monday.
"Everything is calm in Ropalce, but we have left because of the clashes in Matejce," 56-year old villager Sahim Salih said.
Several thousand civilians have fled the area since the army launched an intense offensive last week against about 10 villages occupied by ethnic Albanian guerrillas.
Artillery fire targeted Slupcane, the stronghold of the self-styled National Liberation Army (NLA), as troops tried to enter the village from the east, and nearby Orizare and Otlja were also shelled.
A few kilometers (miles) away, tanks could be seen on the outskirts of Matejce, where fleeing villagers said rebels had gained control of part of the hamlet after troops last week took back two nearby villages from the guerrillas.
Markovski said policemen had begun deploying in Matejce, carrying out checks "house by house," after reinforcements were sent to the area on Sunday.
The army offensive has heightened tensions within Macedonia's shaky coalition government, formed May 13 to present a united front against the rebels who are fighting for increased rights for the ethnic Albanian minority.
The ethnic Albanian and Macedonian Slav parties in the coalition vehemently disagree over the use of force to defeat the rebels.
Georgievski has accused his coalition partners of siding with "terrorists" after the two main ethnic Albanian parties met the rebels' political chief last week to discuss "common action" to promote their cause.