Kumanovo Braced for War

The streets of this ethnically mixed town have gone silent, and some Albanian families have fled. As gun-ships fly nearby, a nervous population watches the conflict edge closer.

Kumanovo Braced for War

The streets of this ethnically mixed town have gone silent, and some Albanian families have fled. As gun-ships fly nearby, a nervous population watches the conflict edge closer.

Helicopters hover high over the deserted streets of Kumanovo. An eerie calm is broken by intermittent explosions from the nearby rebel-held villages of Vaksince and Slupcane.

For residents of this northern Macedonian town - made up of Albanians, Serbs, Vlahs and Roma - the Macedonian conflict has begun in earnest.

"The war has started," Selver Halimi told his 10-year-old son, warning his to stay indoors.

For a third day in a row, the Macedoninan army has shelled neighbouring villages. In Kumanovo schools and many shops are closed, and the town football team has cancelled its matches because it cannot gather its players: most of them live in the conflict area. A curfew, from 10:00 PM to 5:00 AM has been imposed.

Latif's coffee shop, the local favourite, is one of the few shops that has remained open, though there are not many customers. Everyone has the same question on their lips, "When will this stop?"

The town's two main communities are sharply divided.

One Macedonian man firmly backs the military. "Our army is protecting the country from the terrorists," he said.

Albanians are more circumspect, expressing grave concern over the army's actions.

"I can't believe this is happening," said Ilijaz Abazi. "Civilians are being targeted by rockets and helicopters while villages are raised to the ground."

Before launching its offence two days ago, the Macedonian authorities called on all civilians in the villages of Slupcane and Vaksince to leave their homes.

Slupcane, where the shelling has been most intense, is home - besides NLA fighters - to around 5,000 civilians. In Vaksince, there are around 2,000 civilians.

Except for a small number of women and children who headed for the Kosovo and Serbia borders, most residents appeared to remain in their villages. People in Lojane, Lipkovo, Hotla and other settlements have also failed to respond to calls to abandon their homes. But facing a fresh ultimatum by the authorities, this morning, May 6, around 50 villagers from Slupcane agreed to leave.

The Macedonian army claims the villagers are being used by the NLA as "human shields" to deter attacks. While enjoying international support, the security forces have warned by Brussels and Washington to avoid civilian casualties.

But according to information reaching Kumanovo from the surrounding area, Albanian villagers deny that rebels are holding them. Many villagers appear to have gathered in houses, taking cover in basements.

"It is not true that Albanian guerrillas are using women and children as hostages," Ljumnuse Avdilji said in a telephone conversation from Vaksince. "We are not terrorists and we are not attacking anyone. In fact, we are being attacked by Macedonian forces."

"It is our decision to remain here," said another Albanian woman. "We don't want to leave our houses."

Shelling resumed May 6, Saturday, following the expiry of an 11:00 AM deadline set by the Macedonian army for the NLA to withdraw.

It is impossible to verify casualty reports, or to confirm any distinctions between civilian and guerrilla wounded. Macedonian sources deny any attacks on civilians.

But reports from a local doctor, Dr Fatmire Hasani, suggest around eight dead and 50 wounded, with no official information on army or military losses.

Meantime, some Albanian sources are warning that Albanian homes are being set on fire, with people inside.

"It's terrible what is going on in Slupcane," said Dr Hasani. "Innocent people are losing their lives just because they're Albanian."

Around 20 Albanian policemen are reported to have left the Macedonian police and given their weapons and uniforms to the NLA.

Sources close to the rebels, boasting of sophisticated military equipment, have told local media that they have successfully fought off Macedonian military attacks. They claim to have shot down three helicopters and captured two tanks. Macedonian official sources deny any losses.

All this creates tensions in Kumanovo.

The population is a potentially volatile mixture of Serbs, ethnic Macedonians and Albanians. Locals fear that if the conflict spreads to the town, the situation could explode into ethnic blood-letting.

Inter-ethnic relations have long been Kumanovo's biggest challenge. The town has always been tense, with Serbs and ethnic Macedonians often in conflict with Albanians. The opening shots of the Second World War in Macedonia were fired in the town.

"Kumanovo could turn into a second Vukovar," said one ethnic Macedonian.

As yet, there have been no incidents. Local politicians and the police appealed to locals not to respond to any provocation.

The mayor of Kumanovo, Slobodan Kovacevski, called on Macedonians and Serbs not to destroy Albanian shops and houses, as in Bitola following the funeral of four soldiers killed by NLA.

Kovacevski also appealed to the Albanians to spurn the NLA and join the Macedonian army to defend their country from the guerrilla attacks.

Husamedin Halili, the mayor of Lipkovo, appealed to the security forces to stop bombarding Albanian villages.

The question is how influential any local political figures can be in such circumstances? Kumanovo residents think that the situation is already out of control.

Last night, rumours spread throughout the Albanian community that ethnic Macedonians and Serbs were preparing to destroy Albanian houses. This morning, hundreds of Albanians families left Kumanovo for Skopje.

"We are waiting in our houses to see what will happen next," said one worried Albanian. "It is better to stay inside then to go out. It might be risky".

A local Serb agreed. "I am afraid that my children might become victims of this madness," he said.

Nexhat Aqifi is a journalist in Kumanovo.

Macedonia, Serbia, Kosovo
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