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Macedonia: Ahmeti Arrest Threat

The nationalist government has angered the West by threatening to detain an ethnic Albanian leader.
By IWPR staff

Macedonia Friday risked confrontation with the West after the government confirmed it had issued an arrest warrant for a prominent ethnic Albanian opposition figure, in defiance of last year's Ohrid peace deal.

NATO's ambassador to Macedonia, Nicholaas Biegman, said any move to apprehend Ali Ahmeti, a former rebel leader now heading one of the country's biggest political parties, contradicted the terms of the deal, which included an amnesty for former fighters.

After last year's Ohrid agreement curbed secessionist violence in western Macedonia, Ahmeti became the leader of Democratic Union of Integration DUI, now the largest opposition party, alongside the Social Democratic Alliance of Macedonia, SDSM. The DUI espouses a moderate programme that supports the unity of Macedonia.

In spite of his moderation, Macedonian protesters have been calling for his arrest since the recent killing of two ethnic Macedonian policemen.

The arrests threaten to unravel the West's painstakingly assembled peace strategy that centered on drawing Albanian militants into the political process.

If the government, comprising the nationalist Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation - Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity, VMRO-DPMNE, the Liberal Democratic Party, Democratic Party of Albanians, DPA and Party for Democratic Prosperity, PDP, does seize Ahmeti, it will almost certainly trigger a new revolt in the mostly Albanian west of the republic.

Some analysts believe VMRO and its partners are counting on a return to violence, and the subsequent cancellation of the election, as part of their strategy for retaining power.

As tension threatened to spiral out of control on Friday, heavily armed police sealed off an ethnic Albanian village where five Macedonians kidnapped by Albanian gunmen are apparently being held.

Police said the gunmen stopped a bus on the Gostivar highway in western Macedonia and seized several Macedonian civilians, threatening to kill them if Albanians arrested for the murder of the two Macedonian policemen were not freed. The kidnappers said they would kill their five hostages by a Friday morning deadline, a police source in Tetovo said.

Large numbers of police with a dozen armoured personnel carriers were seen outside the village of Zerovjane, halfway between Tetovo and Gostivar.

The two policemen were killed on August 26 in Gostivar. Danail Jankovski, 47, and Aleksandar Nikolic, 39, died when drivers of a car with foreign license plates fired at the checkpoint where they were on duty, leaving the scene at great speed.

The militant Albanian National Army, ANA, said it was responsible for the killing. Although the group is in conflict with Ahmeti, protesters began demanding the latter's arrest.

Within 12 hours of the Gostivar killings, Macedonians from the suburbs were blocking roads into the city, building barricades of cars, and buses. At a rally that followed, protesters carried placards bearing the messages, "Stop Ahmeti and his murderers", and "Ahmeti, we'll catch you".

The public prosecutor, Stavre Dzikov, and controversial hard line interior minister, Ljupce Boskovski, have backed the arrest calls.

The aim of the protesters was to prevent the DUI leader from reaching Skopje and addressing a pre-election rally scheduled for Saturday.

The headquarters of two Albanian political parties in Skopje were attacked on Thursday and the headquarters of the People's Democratic Party, NDP, led by Kastriot Haxhirexha, was set on fire. A bomb went off in front of Ahmeti's house in Skopje and a Molotov cocktail was also thrown at it. There were no injuries.

Ahmeti's party described the assaults as pressure organised by the authorities. In a letter to the international community, the party spokesman, Agron Buxhaku, said "certain circles" in the government were trying to "organise sabotage, media blockades and arrests of party leaders".

The NDP complained that police did not even investigate the arson attack on their headquarters. They said the fire was organised by the ruling parties who were jealous of their popularity.

However, the police suggested the blaze was the work of other ethnic Albanians. The interior ministry blamed terrorist groups trying to destabilise the country two weeks before the election.

Dzikov, a VMRO member, backed the call for Ahmeti's arrest, saying if charges were brought against any citizen "they should be arrested so that law and order will be respected". Dzikov claimed the internationally-brokered amnesty for rebel fighters did not apply to anyone charged with terrorism.

Leaders of the four biggest Albanian parties on Friday, including the DUI and rulling DPA, strongly condemned the kidnapping of Macedonian civilians near Gostivar and the recent increase in violence.

VMRO and its Liberal Democratic Party partners have used the crisis to demand that the opposition Social Democratic Alliance of Macedonia sign an agreement, politically isolating Ahmeti. They want all Macedonian parties to promise not to form a coalition with the DUI after the election. "This is not pre-election marketing, but a serious proposal for protecting the national interests," the VMRO said.

Some of the smaller parties are deeply sceptical of the motives for such an agreement, suggesting the killing of the two policeman was organised by government agents to increase tension.

Incidents resulting in injuries have, however, become an almost daily part of Macedonia's pre-election life. On 15 August, two soldiers were lightly wounded in an attack on a barracks in Skopje. The attackers fired from automatic guns and threw a bomb at the troops. On the same day, an ethnic Albanian from the village of Aracinovo wounded a member of Ahmeti's party in a fight.

On 16 August, a car full of weapons exploded on the Skopje-Blace road. On the same day, a bomb destroyed a pastry shop in the Kumanovo region, while in a separate incident the police said one of its checkpoints was attacked near the village of Opae.

Various gangs on the Tetovo-Gostivar highway have been erecting placing blockades and robbing drivers.

The pre-election violence has raised concern for the future of the peace agreement in international circles. They fear the killing of the policemen, the attacks on the offices of Albanian parties and the road blockades herald a potentially dangerous escalation of tension.

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