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THE WORLD | STEPS TOWARD PEACE IN MACEDONIA

Rebel Leader No Longer Persona Non Grata

Macedonia: Ali Ahmeti, wanted by police and banned by the U.S., has legitimized himself and his group via NATO negotiations.

August 20, 2001|ALISSA J. RUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SIPKOVICA, Macedonia — A clear sign of the change in the political climate in Macedonia came Sunday when the leader of the nation's ethnic Albanian rebels held a 45-minute news conference for foreign media in this guerrilla-controlled town that for months has been off-limits to outsiders.

Flanked by armed rebel commanders, a spokesman and a translator, the political head of the National Liberation Army, or NLA, Ali Ahmeti, appeared before cameras and pledged to uphold his end of the peace deal signed a week ago by handing over the movement's weapons to NATO troops, who began arriving in the country over the weekend.

About 350 British, French and Czech soldiers arrived Saturday and Sunday, just ahead of a planned visit today by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's supreme commander, U.S. Air Force Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, who will evaluate the status of the latest cease-fire.

Late Sunday, there were reports of gunfire and shelling in nearby Tetovo, the country's second-largest city and a hot spot in the conflict between ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians. Macedonian television said it was the most significant violation of the cease-fire.

There is no doubt that the rebels have a lot of weapons to hand over.

Sipkovica is a vivid symbol of the power the rebels have gained in the six months since they took up arms to fight, they say, for more rights for Macedonia's ethnic Albanian minority.

There are no ethnic Macedonians in the mountain village, and at checkpoints outside it, everyone who enters or leaves must register with armed NLA guards. The streets are filled with NLA soldiers wearing crisp combat uniforms and carrying assault rifles. Few men of fighting age are unarmed. This is a place where the rebels are heroes to the population.

Children run through the streets waving and chanting "UCK! UCK!" the Albanian initials for the NLA. Nurses in the town infirmary are proud to minister to injured guerrillas, and a number of the houses fly the Albanian flag.

Macedonia has about 2 million people, of whom at least 25% are ethnic Albanian. Most of these live in the northwest of the country, where Sipkovica is located.

Despite the garrison-like setting, Ahmeti struck a conciliatory tone.

"The war is over. . . . Now we are oriented toward democracy, not fighting," he said in his address to reporters in a schoolhouse on the edge of town.

"Our arms will be given to NATO," said Ahmeti, and in turn every soldier who hands in his arms will be granted amnesty from prosecution by Macedonia's government.

Reports of the news conference--at which, according to Macedonian sources, no Macedonian media were present--are likely to further frustrate ethnic Macedonians, who already feel that Western leaders are in league with the ethnic Albanians.

Ahmeti spoke in a schoolroom under four flags--those of Albania, the European Union, the United States and NATO. Notably missing was the Macedonian flag, an omission likely to affirm the suspicion of many ethnic Macedonians that the NLA wants NATO to help enforce a partition of the country that would essentially grant independence to areas where ethnic Albanians are a majority.

Ahmeti said the absence of the Macedonian flag had no significance and that one would be hung soon. "Tomorrow," he said.

The recent legitimization of Ahmeti and the NLA through the peace process is one of the stranger turns in the conflict that has shaken Macedonia since February.

As recently as June, President Bush issued executive orders prohibiting financial donations to five ethnic Albanian groups, including the NLA, and banning travel to the U.S. by some ethnic Albanian leaders, including Ahmeti.

Macedonian law enforcement officials issued an arrest warrant for Ahmeti in July. They charged him and 10 other suspected rebel leaders with a number of crimes, including terrorism, genocide and human rights violations.

But in the past few weeks, NATO representatives have been negotiating as intensively with Ahmeti as with the Macedonian government.

Already, Ahmeti has met with British Brig. Barney White-Spunner, who will be leading a larger NATO force in Macedonia once it is deployed. White-Spunner arrived late Friday with the first British troops. He also has met with Macedonian government officials.

One of the most contentious issues yet to be resolved is how many arms the NLA will hand over to NATO. Macedonians have said they believe that the rebels have at least 8,000 guns and other armaments; the NLA has floated numbers closer to 2,000.

When asked about the numbers, Ahmeti sounded not unlike NATO officials responding to the same question from reporters the day before.

"We have a team of experts" working on the numbers, Ahmeti said.

A senior Western diplomat who has met with Ahmeti described him as "a man of vision."

That is hardly how Macedonian government officials see him. On the evening news on the main government television channel, Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski described him as "bandit Ali Ahmeti" and said it was a sign of "shocking arrogance" that he held a news conference when he faces criminal charges by the Macedonian government.

In a further affront to ethnic Macedonians, Ahmeti arrived for the news conference in an Audi A6 that an ethnic Albanian government official had reported had disappeared when he was visiting Tetovo, Macedonia's largest ethnic Albanian city, last week.

The car's reappearance delighted some Albanians in Sipkovica, however, who pointed at it, saying, "That's the government car."

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