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Macedonia: Police Manhunt Provokes Ethnic Tensions
Police pulled back from ethnic Albanian villages this week after their search for an alleged criminal alarmed local people and raised fears of a re-run of the ethnic conflict that almost plunged the country into civil war two years ago.
The police decision on September 4 to withdraw to the outskirts of settlements north of Kumanovo came after the residents of the village of Vaksince gave assurances that Avdil Jakupi, an Albanian, was no longer holding out there.
Police last week launched a major operation to capture Jakupi, suspected of kidnapping two people on August 27, deploying hundreds of officers, and setting up checkpoints, in the area.
Many local Albanians left, panicked by the mass presence of policemen, known for their heavy-handed tactics. Local media additionally inflamed the situation by publishing numerous reports about a re-run of the 2001 conflict.
Opposition parties sought to make political capital out of the incident, accusing the government of making a hash of the security operation.
The escalating tension in the area was diffused when Albanian parliamentary deputies and police reassured locals that officers were targeting criminals not civilians.
As part of the Western-brokered Ohrid accord that brought an end to fighting between Albanian rebels and government forces two years ago, the former agreed to lay down their weapons in return for a big improvement in their community's civil rights. A number of the former guerrillas became politicians, won the majority of Albanian votes in parliamentary elections last September and became members of the ruling coalition.
Since the poll, there have been few violent incidents in the country although numerous police and international reports speak of the presence of several armed groups in the former crisis regions, many of them engaged in criminal activities.
Tensions soared in the Vaksince region when Jakupi, dubbed Commander Chakala, abducted a policemen and a civilian, releasing them several hours, after his call for the release of two detained friends was rejected by officers.
Jakupi, who is believed to have escaped to the Kumanovo region, says he's a member of a shadowy militant group called the Albanian National Army, ANA - described by the UN as a terrorist organisation - which has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks in Kosovo, southern Serbia and Macedonia, most recently an August 30 grenade attack on government offices in Skopje.
Many Macedonians believe the ANA - whose stated goal is the unification of all Albanian territories - is much less powerful than it says, suspecting that the group has a small number of operatives and claims responsibility for crimes that others have committed.
The ANA, for its part, denies that Jakupi is a member, viewing him as a common criminal.
Officially, Jakupi was the target of the police operation, but there are reported to be several other criminal groups active in the same area.
"We have not seen a structured organisation that poses a serious threat. These people are criminals that cause trouble to the local population," Mirjana Kontevska, police spokesman told IWPR.
One group, based in Vaksince, is believed to control smuggling in the Kumanovo region and another, from the Skopska Crna Gora mountains, north of the capital, is said to comprise a number of ANA members.
Four days after police officers deployed en masse in the Vaksince area, the ANA issued an ultimatum on its website, threatening violence if they didn't withdraw within 24 hours.
As the deadline expired, a number of Albanian deputies showed up in Vaksince to speak to the local population and assure them that the police operation was not against them but criminals operating there.
Government sources told IWPR that the police were planning to move into the area to crack down on crime even before the abductions and that officials and senior officers this week had several meetings with local representatives in order to defuse tension.
After the latter gave assurances that Jakupi was no longer in the vicinity, a decision was made to scale back the security operation.
"Fears of a repeat of the 2001 conflict stirred tensions all around, but both sides did their best to calm things down," one police officer told IWPR.
Western diplomats say renewed conflict is unlikely as there is a broad consensus that the Ohrid accord has paved the way for stability - they suspect that lingering tensions are now more criminal than ethnic in nature.
"There has been some nervousness that this [the Vaksince incident] is a repeat of 2001 but the situation is completely different today," said Irena Guzelova, spokeswoman for the European Union. "It is not about ethnicity. The [police] operation was about establishing law and order."
Ana Petruseva is IWPR project manager in Skopje.
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