Macedonia: Albanian Factions Clash

Simmering feud between rival Albanian fighters bursts into the open

Macedonia: Albanian Factions Clash

Simmering feud between rival Albanian fighters bursts into the open

Tuesday, 6 September, 2005

A gunfight between rival factions of former Albanian guerrillas left four people dead on Monday and casts a shadow over the fragile Macedonia peace agreement.

Details of the battle were sketchy as workmen hosed away blood on Tuesday morning from a street in Mala Recica village near Tetovo. Shattered glass from windows and the rear windshield of a BMW littered the road.

The impact of a rocket-propelled grenade was etched deep on the side of a building used as headquarters by the Albanian National Liberation army, NLA.

It was the NLA which spearheaded seven months of conflict last year against the Macedonian majority. The fighting ended in August with the Ohrid Agreement which promised improved civil rights for the Albanian minority.

The Monday night battle was believed to be between the NLA and a splinter group calling itself the Albanian National Army, ANA. Both sides accused each other of firing the first shot. Residents said the dead included three NLA members and one ANA gunman. Several more people were wounded.

The incident demonstrated that many weapons remain in the hands of former guerrillas, despite last year's NATO-led disarmament drive. It will also fuel the anger of hard-line nationalist Macedonians who opposed the granting of an amnesty for guerrillas.

The gunfight came just a day after NLA leader Ali Ahmeti was chosen to head a new Albanian political group known as the Coordinating Council, aimed at bringing together the rebel group and three Albanian political parties under one banner.

But the cause of the fighting is clouded by the murky nature of the ANA, which has come out publicly only through the internet, and by other conflicts among former NLA members.

The ANA is opposed to Ahmeti, whom they regard as unduly moderate, and called in a recent communique for abandonment of the Ohrid Agreement and a return to war "to liberate Albanian land".

Ahmeti blamed the ANA for this week's gunfight. The latter, in a typically florid communiqué, said it had fired in self-defence against "reactionary rubbish" that had attacked its volunteers.

Another ANA statement said the battle erupted after a group of its recruits, said to be travelling in a van full of weapons, was intercepted by an NLA detachment. Hours later, as the ANA tried to negotiate the release of its men, NLA soldiers opened fire, the statement said.

Some former NLA members say the conflict stemmed from a dispute which intensified earlier this month, when the rebel group prepared to mobilise because of efforts by Macedonian nationalists to obstruct the adoption of an amnesty law.

On March 7, it appeared that hard-line Macedonian lawmakers were ready to bog down a parliamentary session called to debate the proposed law. Leading NLA commanders concluded that a return to fighting was inevitable and prepared their units. But their plans were dropped after the amnesty bill was passed unexpectedly at the last minute.

But one former NLA leader, known as Xhaxhi, refused to stand down. He had taken up position in the village of Lisec, later moving his group of about 30 armed fighters to neighbouring Rasadiste, just above Mala Recica on the steep slopes of Shara mountain.

A tense standoff ensued, one resident said, as fighters dispatched from the NLA command in Sipkovica took up positions in the upper part of the village to counter any moves by Xhaxhi's group.

An OSCE patrol visited the village following a report that residents had been told by the gunmen to leave their houses. The patrol reported seeing Xhaxhi in the village, describing him as "a well-known radical former commander".

NLA sources say that they tried unsuccessfully to contact Xhaxhi and talk over the situation but he withdrew from the village without a fight.

International officials in Macedonia said Tuesday they believe Xhaxhi was the leader of the ANA unit involved in Monday night's clashes. "We think it's the same group of people. We think it's an escalation of the same disagreement," said NATO spokesman Craig Ratcliff.

Another senior foreign official said he expected the inter-Albanian conflict to continue, saying, "It's not likely to be the end of this kind of violence. There are probably going to be more outbursts."

Jeff Bieley is a freelance journalist based in Macedonia

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