Macedonian Border Violence

Renewed violence along the Macedonian border has fuelled fears of a new Balkan conflict.

Macedonian Border Violence

Renewed violence along the Macedonian border has fuelled fears of a new Balkan conflict.

Hanife Bislimi, a 40-year-old mother of six pointed at various Macedonian border villages on a map of the region. "That's Albanian, that's Albanian and that's Albanian," she declared.

Like many of the 500 refugees who have fled the village of Tanusevci in Northern Macedonia in the past few days, Bislimi dreams of living in a state unifying Albanian populated areas of the former Yugoslavia, but is opposed to the violent methods some have adopted to realise it.

Fighting around Tanusevci in Northern Macedonia between the army and ethnic Albanian militants escalated this week, following the reinforcement of troops in the area.

The Skopje government believes Tanusevci is being held by the militants and has threatened to send in its forces to root them out.

The army's black uniformed adversaries are believed to be members of the National Liberation Army, NLA - a new group of former Kosovo Liberation Army, KLA, soldiers waging a separatist action in the majority ethnic Albanian region of Macedonia.

Many of those who've fled the fighting are now staying with relatives or in makeshift accommodation in Debelde, two miles inside the Kosovo border. The paucity of men among the refugees has led to speculation that they have been conscripted by the guerrillas

"The refugees who arrived from Tanusevci say that their reason for fleeing was the increased tension and the build up of Macedonian forces in the area," said UNHCR spokeswoman in Kosovo, Astrid van Genderen Stort.

But refugees point to more direct intimidation. "Macedonian forces shot at us, and we were threatened and harassed by them," said Bislimi.

Such stories back up reports that security forces have been targeting ethnic Albanians following the recent attack on a police station in Tearce which left one officer dead. The NLA claimed responsibility for the action.

The Skopje authorities suspect the outrage was perpetrated by Kosovo Albanian guerrillas fighting in the Presevo Valley in Southern Serbia. It believes they are trying to spread the violence across the border.

The fear in Skopje and Belgrade is that Albanian nationalists in western Macedonia and southern Serbia want to unite the regions with Kosovo.

But some Western officials suggest the explanation for the violence along the Macedonian border is more prosaic: that Albanian fighters in Presevo are trying to deflect international attention after coming under heavy international criticism for their attacks on Serbs in the region.

Refugees in Debelde appear to have little idea who is behind the attacks along the frontier.

Some are clearly fearful of the NLA and say that they disapprove of their violent actions. There have been a number of unconfirmed reports that Tanusevci residents had been taken hostage and used as a human shield to prevent all-out attacks by the Macedonian government forces.

Others believe no such organisation exists and that the Macedonian government has created the spectre of an extremist Albanian organisation to justify its harassment and general mistreatment of people living in border areas. "I have never seen the NLA, and I don't believe they exist. The Macedonian government is lying," said Zenun Murseli from Debelde.

Both K-For and NATO officials, who visited the area on Wednesday, seem keen to play down the border incidents.

US K-For soldiers deployed in the area have stepped up their patrols, but they say they have no knowledge of Albanian rebel movements across the border.

"It has been very quiet here," said K-For's US officer Captain Marcus Evans near Debelde.

" We have searched some people, but we have found no weapons."

But the Macedonian authorities are unimpressed. Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski accused the peacekeepers of failing to properly monitor the border with Kosovo.

The omens are not looking good. There have been reports of a second armed Albanian group the AKSh, apparently a rival to the NLA, operating in the area. A calm may have descended on the region for the moment, but it's likely that USKFOR troops may soon be having to deal with something more than they have bargained for.

Kristian Kahrs is a freelance journalist writing for Norwegian and international media in Kosovo and Serbia. He previously worked as a K-For press officer.

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