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Macedonia Unravels

KLA arms caches, Serbian pro-Milosevic demonstrators, and friction between Skopje and the West. The signs are ominous for the fragile republic.

In the first evidence of a guerrilla presence within Macedonia, police have seized a tractor-trailer filled with 308 pieces of weaponry in the town of Kumanovo. Subsequently in a nearby in a deserted mine, 4.5 tons worth of guns, ammunition, land mines and hand grenades were uncovered. Their Chinese origin suggests that the cache was smuggled in from Albania by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

According to Interior Minister Pavle Trajanov, there will be more attempts to smuggle in arms from Albania weaponry. Trajanov fears that unless the war in Yugoslavia is resolved soon, the security crisis there will be "exported" to Macedonia.

Guns, ammunition and the like are not the only problem according to Trajonov, who has speculated on the likely presence of KLA members among the refugees now camped inside Macedonia. The New York Times has already reported meeting with a half-dozen Albanian men it said were "self-described officers of the KLA."

And Albanian radicals are not the only ones becoming active in Macedonia. Skopje held its first rock concert for peace, echoing the ones being held in Serbia. Flags of the former Yugoslavia and even pictures of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic were seen in the capital's central square.

Malisa Bozovic, secretary-general of the Democratic Party of Serbs in Macedonia, argues that Yugoslavia has the right to target NATO positions within Macedonia. "NATO planes are bombing Yugoslavia through Macedonian skies and they have at their disposal logistical support, complete military and civil infrastructure that is being used for spying and stationing ground forces." The Democrats are planning another big protest in the capital soon.

Meantime, the owners of land around Stenkovec, the largest refugee camp in Macedonia, are refusing permission for it to be enlarged. Made up of both Macedonians as well as local Serbs, they sympathise with the demonstrators in the capital.

But the camp, which already houses more than 40,000 refugees, is too small to receive the latest refugee wave from Kosovo. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, up to 4,000 have been arriving each day. UNHCR spokesperson Ron Redmond has predicted up to 100,000 new refugees will be arriving at the border soon. He says they include 20,000 from the region of Urosevac and 50,000 from Gnjilane.

Conditions within the camps are far from ideal. Bribery to escape the camps has been reported, and cigarette and alcohol smuggling has increased. On Sunday a carton of the cheapest Macedonian cigarettes reached the staggering price of 100 DM ($57) in the camps. Sanitary conditions are deteriorating with the overpopulation, and the weather has been cold and rainy.

Promises by other countries to take some 92,620 of the refugees have been delayed. UN figures show that out of 560,000 Kosovo refugees it has registered since the beginning of the NATO strikes, 132,700 entered Macedonia. The Macedonian government puts the figure at 150,000. With the existing camps only able to house a third of the refugees, the rest are being looked after in private homes. While initially, the international community planned to fly out 1,500 people a day from Skopje, less than 13,000 have departed since the airlift started.

Disputes over the refugee issue have flared regularly between the Macedonian government, aid agencies and Western governments. Macedonian Minister of Defence Nikola Kljusev has stated firmly that the government has no intention of building any more camps and that new refugees from Kosovo cannot stay in the country. This has prompted German Defence Deputy Secretary of State Walter Koblon to suggest that his country will not help Macedonia's bid to join the European Union. Kljusev replied in turn that this was tantamount to blackmail.

Within the Macedonian government, differences among the coalition partners about the role of NATO are getting more obvious. The parliament has passed a resolution supporting the government's refusal to allow NATO to use Macedonia to stage an intervention into Yugoslavia. The media speculate whether the Social Democrats of President Kiro Gligorov are applying pressure to change this stance.

Meanwhile, Arben Xhaferi, the leader of the Democratic Party of the Albanians, which is a member of the governing coalition, argues that Macedonia has already taken sides in the conflict (with NATO) and must follow through. He has also called for a more open and generous policy towards the refugees.

Iso Rusi is a journalist with Fokus in Skopje.

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