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Chaos on the streets of Skopje: The fear of war is growing

Protests and riots on the streets of Skopje; Serb demonstrators attack American Embassy; Macedonian Army on higher state of alert; mobilisation of police reserve forces; multinational Nato forces stationed along the northern borders; long queues for stapl

In Macedonia Serbia is seen as an overbearing, unforgiving neighbour who will not take lightly any Macedonian co-operation with ‘Western occupiers’. A deep-rooted fear of imminent war is the Macedonian reality now.

On the streets of Macedonia’s capital city, Skopje, chaos reigns supreme. Several thousand citizens of Serb origin took to the streets for the second day running, protesting in the main square and in front of embassies of Western-European countries. Some 5,000 Serbs, angered at Nato attacks on Serbia, besieged and attacked the American, German and British Embassies on Thursday. They set fire to several vehicles in front of the Embassies and smashed shop windows throughout the town centre. An American flag was taken from the pole in front of the American Embassy and burned to the enthusiastic cheering of the angry mass of protesters. The Yugoslav ensign was raised in its place.

Strong police forces broke-up the demonstrators on Thursday with tear-gas, arresting around 60 people . Dragisa Miletic, leader of the Serb Democratic Party in Macedonia and organiser of the protest, was one of the arrested men. Today, Friday, at a press conference, Miletic demanded the immediate release of all those arrested.

The protests in Skopje continued today with another attack on West European embassies by several thousand Serb citizens. High-schools students from several schools in Skopje joined demonstrators. While a number of streets in the town centre were cordoned-off by the demonstrators, all government institutions and the Parliament are now being guarded by special police forces. Armed Nato soldiers guard the embassies of Western-European countries. This, however, did not prevent demonstrators from detonating an explosive device in the vicinity of the German Embassy.

A Ministry of Interior official said protests were the most aggressive ones in Macedonia ever seen. Speculations abound that Macedonian Albanians could organise a counter-protest in support of Nato action. Furthermore, it is conceivable they could request an intervention to be launched from Macedonia's own territory.

Military experts, however, warn that this could draw Macedonia directly into war with Serbia, which has already repeatedly alleged that it was involved by having invited Nato troops in. General Nebojsa Pavkovic, commander of the Third Army Sector of the Yugoslav Army, said recently that Yugoslav territory was violated from the Macedonian side. Ljupce Georgievski, Macedonian Prime Minister, and Nikola Kljusev, Defence Minister, rejected Pavkovic’s accusation as unfounded and reiterated the Macedonian official stance that there will be no shelling of Yugoslavia from Macedonia.

The Party for Democratic Prosperity (PDP), the Albanian opposition, disagreed and requested a change in policy in order to allow Nato to fire at Yugoslavia from Macedonia's territory. In light of this position taken by PDP, any future protests staged by Albanians in Macedonia will be perceived in connection with PDP’s request for intervention from Macedonia.

The Macedonian Army has upped its state of alert and the reserve police forces were mobilised in order to deal with the civil unrest. Nato soldiers are stationed alongside the entire stretch of the northern border with Yugoslavia, within a three- to five-kilometre belt from the border.

The Macedonian border crossings remain open, except for the Skopje international airport, which remains shut on Friday.

The number of refugees from Kosovo is also growing steadily, although the influx is presently less intensive due to Serbia's decision to close its borders with Macedonia. Refugees nevertheless keep arriving, using illegal border passes in the mountains. Macedonian authorities have still not provided sufficient shelters for all, so the refugees are left to their own means – usually to find temporary accommodation with Albanian families in Macedonia. 13,000 refugees have been registered so far, although the estimates are that there could be three times as many of this. The Government has requested urgent assistance from the European Union and the United States, on behalf of the refugees, to help prevent an impeding humanitarian disaster.

The fear of war is growing by the minute, working its way into the minds of Macedonian citizens. The noise of airplane engines and distant detonations in Kosovo can be heard in the north of the country. Nato helicopters transporting troops and equipment continually swarm the skies. Streets have been virtually deserted since the raids on Serbia begun two nights ago. The queues in front of shops are unusually long – the war fever makes people buy emergency supplies of flour, salt, cooking oil and petrol.

The fear of Milosevic’s retaliation is palpable and growing by the minute in proportion to the danger of destabilisation of Macedonia. If Albanians decide also to take it to the streets to counter Serb protests, the country could further descend into chaos. For a major outbreak of violence all that needs to happen now is for the two contesting groups of demonstrators to meet on the streets.

Gordana Icevska is a journalist with the Macedonian daily, Dnevnik.

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