Macedonia: Police Return to Rebel Villages

Ethnic Albanians appear reconciled to having Macedonian policemen return to their villages.

Macedonia: Police Return to Rebel Villages

Ethnic Albanians appear reconciled to having Macedonian policemen return to their villages.

Wednesday, 19 December, 2001

Police are back on the beat in rebel villages where for months they dared not tread. The officers patrol in teams, half ethnic Albanian, half Macedonian, with international observers trailing in their wake. So far it seems to be working.


The villages stand in the ethnic Albanian heartland of western Macedonia, close to the border with Kosovo. They belong to that 10 per cent of the country which remained unpoliced during the conflict that tore Macedonia apart for seven months this year.


When the fighting ended villagers in these areas feared they would be punished for the insurgency if police were allowed back. To reassure them a monitoring team from the Office for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, was assigned to keep an eye on each patrol.


The policemen carry only light weapons and confine their patrolling to just a few hours every day.


A pilot plan for the return of police was started seven weeks ago in five Albanian-populated villages around Tetovo and Kumanovo. This worked so well that the interior ministry and Western monitors decided at the end of the last week to move police back to 15 other villages classified as "low risk" areas around Skopje, Tetovo, and Kumanovo.


As it turned out police managed to enter only ten of these villages. In Dobroste, Neraste and Odri, near Tetovo, residents blocked the road with cars, trucks and tractors to keep the officers out. The villagers accused NATO and the OSCE of moving too quickly and disregarding their wishes. They demanded more Albanians on the patrols.


Police failed to enter two other villages, Merovo and Cerovo, because snowfalls blocked the route.


Residents of Nikustak village in the Kumanovo area, once a rebel stronghold, initially resisted the entry of police but OSCE representatives talked them round. At the entrance to Lipkovo, the mayor and about 56 men watched the patrol arrive to be greeted by one of the main negotiators, Husamedin Halili, and Kumanovo`s chief of police, Dragi Nestorovski. "Everything is going as scheduled. I don't think we will have any problems," Halili said.


The villagers seemed relaxed. Most of them knew the Albanian policemen, "This shows we have finally come to an end of the crisis. I really believe that everything will now be OK," said resident Fari Ademi, 38. He spoke in front of the village mosque which had been demolished by artillery. Red-and-black Albanian flags could be seen sticking out of houses.


Misini Hajruna, a former commander in the now disbanded NLA Albanian guerrilla movement, also watched the arrival. Known by his nom-de-guerre, Shpati, he assured fellow fighters they need no longer fear arrest.


"The amnesty for us has been made official and I am confident that from now on the police operation will function," Shpati said. "There have been no new arrests of former NLA soldiers and I really believe the amnesty will be observed as promised."


On November 16, the Macedonian parliament ratified constitutional reforms


granting greater rights to the Albanian minority which in February had launched a rebellion that pushed the tiny Balkan state to the brink of war. These reforms were spelled out in the Western sponsored Ohrid agreement which called on Macedonian and Albanian political leaders to disarm guerrillas in exchange for improved minority rights.


The day the agreement was approved President Trajkovski clarified his amnesty pledge and promised to pardon 88 former guerrillas detained or


convicted on "terrorism" charges. To date he had pardoned 55 ex-NLA


soldiers.


Before police returned to the villages leaflets were circulated explaining that the pardon covered only those who had voluntarily disarmed by September 26. It would not cover anyone accused of war crimes by The Hague tribunal.


Macedonian police, under Western scrutiny, now expect to enter some 120 villages in the next 50 days and start performing regular tasks 24 hours a day. As one of those covered by amnesty, Shpati said there remains more to do if the fragile peace is to be sustained. "Now we have to put all efforts into building confidence and mutual trust," he said.


During the weekend, one Albanian farmer was shot dead and his son was wounded and subsequently arrested following attack on a checkpoint in Ratae village near Tetovo.


A joint statement by NATO and OSCE ambassadors Claus Vollers and Craig Jenness and the EU special representative Alain Le Roy stated, "We emphasise that this tragic incident was in no way related to the phased redeployment of the Macedonian police into the villages.


"To avoid future incidents of this kind, we strongly believe the police checkpoint in question should be dismantled as soon as possible."


Two days later police released the dead farmer's son without explanation.


Shooting incidents are still regularly reported in crisis areas but diplomats usually dismiss them as banditry.


Ana Petruseva is a journalist with Forum magazine in Skopje


Macedonia, Kosovo
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