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CRISIS IN YUGOSLAVIA

Discovery of Arms Caches May Destabilize Macedonia

Balkans: Kosovo rebels are accused of hiding weapons, but ethnic Albanian leader says stashes were planted.

April 20, 1999|T. CHRISTIAN MILLER and ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SKOPJE, Macedonia — The recent discovery of three weapons caches in Macedonia--and government claims that they are evidence of Kosovo Liberation Army cells inside the country--has given rise to new worries about the stability of the region.

Macedonian officials said Monday that they found weapons at three sites Friday and Saturday, including an elaborate complex in an abandoned chromium mine near the Yugoslav border. Local government officials said the stashes included 28,000 rounds of ammunition, antitank mines and more than 50 automatic rifles.

NATO and Macedonian officials expressed concern over the possible presence of the guerrilla KLA, saying it could destabilize relations between Macedonia and Serbia, the dominant Yugoslav republic. In addition, Yugoslav army units have made border raids into Albania on the pretext of striking at KLA bases in that country.

"We have great, great concerns. We're a poor country with a poorly equipped army," Stevo Pendarovski, head of research for the Macedonian Interior Ministry, said Monday. "This is a serious threat to the stability of Macedonia."

Maj. Eric Mongnot, a NATO spokesman, would not comment on the veracity of the claims of KLA cells in the country but said the weapons could further complicate the delicate relationship between Serbia and Macedonia. "Destabilization is a concern," Mongnot said.

But Arber Xhaferi, the leader of the ethnic Albanian party that shares power in the Macedonian government, said the notion that the weapons stashes belong to the KLA is "absurd."

He pointed out that the area where the weapons were found near the town of Lojane in northern Macedonia is only 500 yards from a Macedonian military base, and thus there is no way that ethnic Albanians could have access to it. He stressed that no KLA soldiers were found--only weapons.

He charged that the weapons stashes were planted by Serb-friendly elements in the Macedonian police or military. Although only a tiny proportion of the population is Serb, the language and culture of the Macedonian Slavs are similar to that of the Serbs.

"They are trying to demonize Albanians," he said. "They want to create a bad image of Albanians as troublemakers in the Balkans."

Xhaferi and his party have made a concerted effort to unite with other ethnic Albanian leaders in keeping their people calm even as Kosovo Albanian refugees have suffered callous treatment by Macedonian authorities.

Although pro-Serb Macedonians have demonstrated against the war in Yugoslavia and held a violent protest in Skopje--Macedonia's capital--the day after the NATO airstrikes began late last month, ethnic Albanians in Macedonia have not staged any anti-Serb protests.

"We decided to keep stability in Macedonia, and we will continue to do that," Xhaferi said.

In the first weapons discovery, police stopped a tractor towing a wagon Friday near Lojane, Pendarovski said. As police were investigating the wagon, which was filled with ammunition, the men drove off in the tractor and escaped, he said.

In the second incident, police discovered what they called a KLA headquarters in an abandoned mine shaft near Lojane with an entrance less than 500 yards from the Yugoslav border.

Within the mine were several rooms, including one long room that appeared to have been used for target practice. Police found a KLA banner and pieces of a KLA uniform inside the mine, Pendarovski said. All told, they discovered 4 tons of weapons and ammunition.

The third discovery was made in Radolista, a village near the Albanian border with Macedonia. Police officials found eight bags of ammunition and gunpowder in a barn, Pendarovski said.

"We want Macedonia to stay an oasis of peace," he said. "But we're on the brink of explosion."

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