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Fighting, Riots Add to Tension in Macedonia

Balkans: Government spokesman accuses U.S., European envoys of bias toward ethnic Albanian rebels, casting doubt on West's mediation efforts.

July 25, 2001|DAVID HOLLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SKOPJE, Macedonia — Fierce fighting erupted between ethnic Albanian guerrillas and Macedonian security forces Tuesday in this country's second-largest city, Tetovo, shortly after a government spokesman blasted Western countries for an alleged pro-rebel bias.

Meanwhile, ethnic Macedonian mobs, angered by the West's attempt to help mediate a solution to the country's strife, roamed through the capital, Skopje. They attacked symbolic targets such as the U.S. and German embassies, a McDonald's restaurant and a British Airways office, throwing rocks, smashing windows and trashing cars with foreign license plates.

Late in the evening, the rioters also began smashing shops owned by ethnic Albanians in primarily ethnic Macedonian areas, looting some.

The rioting came after about 400 protesters, many of them from villages near Tetovo, protested in front of parliament to demand better protection and say that they had been driven from their homes by the guerrillas.

The combination of renewed fighting in Tetovo and sharply escalating tensions between the Macedonian government and Western mediators raised doubts about whether a 19-day-old cease-fire could survive much longer, even on paper.

An army barracks and a police station in Tetovo, a primarily ethnic Albanian city in the country's northwest, were under attack from rebel mortars and small-arms fire at nightfall, state-run television reported. The guerrillas, who call themselves the National Liberation Army, or NLA, have controlled the mountains above Tetovo for weeks. They are entrenched well within shelling distance of the city.

Snipers also were firing at Macedonian security forces from houses in Tetovo, state television said. Street fighting between rebels and security forces was underway in many parts of the city, it added.

The evening battle in Tetovo erupted after an extraordinary verbal attack by government spokesman Antonio Milososki against virtually all the Western institutions trying to bring peace to Macedonia.

Milososki charged at a news conference that U.S. special envoy James Pardew and European Union envoy Francois Leotard "have directly supported the paramilitary NLA."

"The activity of international representatives in the Republic of Macedonia and the actions of the paramilitary organization are very well-coordinated," Milososki alleged. "Mr. Pardew and the pressure he and his colleague are applying on Macedonian institutions is today directly fulfilled through an offensive by the NLA and its attempts to conquer the city of Tetovo. Ethnic cleansing, killing of civilians and killing members of Macedonian security forces are direct consequences of [this] cooperation. We have to face the fact that NATO is not an enemy of the Republic of Macedonia, but that it is a big ally of our enemies."

Milososki also complained that Pardew and Leotard had inaccurately blamed the government for Monday's cease-fire violations.

In a formal joint statement, Pardew and Leotard said they were "shocked by allegations that they support the NLA or that they lay responsibility for the fighting in Tetovo on the Macedonian security forces." They added that they are "in Macedonia at the request of the Macedonian government to help bring peace to the people of Macedonia."

Pardew said separately: "We deny the allegations. . . . We have no relations with the NLA. We do not support the NLA. We oppose the NLA."

Pardew and Leotard have been mediating political reform talks aimed at granting greater rights to ethnic Albanians in hopes of defusing the guerrilla insurgency. Those talks are deadlocked over the latest Western-backed proposal, which calls for Albanian to become an official language. Ethnic Albanian politicians have said they would accept the draft as written, while ethnic Macedonian politicians are refusing to agree, according to Western diplomats who have spoken on condition of anonymity.

Milososki's statements can be understood in part as an expression of anger over enormous Western pressure on the country's leaders to sign the document or at least make a serious counterproposal.

Early in the day, Milososki said, Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski had sought Cabinet approval for a counteroffensive unless the North Atlantic Treaty Organization could show by 5 p.m. that the guerrillas would return to the positions they held before the cease-fire.

Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski, speaking separately to reporters, said that "this terrorist extremist group that calls itself the NLA has as its only goal to carry out ethnic cleansing and to expel ethnic Macedonians from their centuries-old homes, and to conquer large territory."

The renewed fighting in Tetovo does not necessarily mean that hopes for peace are dead, said Halil Snopche, a member of the largest ethnic Albanian party, the Democratic Party of Albanians, and also head of the city council in Gostivar, a town near Tetovo.

There is still no alternative to a political settlement, Snopche said.

"Today in Tetovo it's like a civil war, and this kind of war doesn't do good for anyone," he said. "Heads must be cooled down, and a way must be found for dialogue, to pursue a solution."

*

Times special correspondent Zoran Cirjakovic contributed to this report.

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