Macedonian Press 'Expose' Taleban Plot

Skopje media sees hand of Taleban behind ethnic Albanian revolt

Macedonian Press 'Expose' Taleban Plot

Skopje media sees hand of Taleban behind ethnic Albanian revolt

Osama bin Laden's alleged role as the terrorist mastermind behind the New York bombings has triggered a media hunt in Macedonia for home grown Taleban fighters among the rebel Albanian forces.

"Mujahedin among the NLA", said one newspaper headline, referring to the main Albanian militant group. "Bin Laden's Fighters Fight Together With the Macedonian Albanians", said another. The stories are all accompanied by photographs of Arabs in traditional dress and bearing arms.

Before the September 11 attacks in New York, few ethnic Macedonian commentators had spotted the presence of Bin Laden's fighters. Nor had the security services revealed that his agents were operating in the country.

The published material provides no proof one way or the other, as none of the photographs of Afghan fighters in the papers were necessarily taken in Macedonia.

The campaign began in the columns of Dnevnik, the daily newspaper with the biggest circulation. Citing local intelligence sources and the foreign media, it has published a stream of stories asserting the presence of mujahedin fighters in the ranks of the NLA.

Aleksandar Damovski, Dnevnik's editor, said proof of Taleban activity in Macedonia came from videotapes, photographs and the reports of policemen and soldiers. "On one videotape we can see a commander called Teli who is certainly active in Macedonia," he said. "And we have a lot of testimonies from people on the front line. They all say the mujahedin are active in the fighting in Macedonia."

The trend set by Dnevnik was followed by its competitors. The government newspaper Vecer has claimed Bin Laden directly financed the NLA through Sali Berisha, the former president of Albania. Vecer cited anonymous intelligence sources who claimed Berisha was in touch with a variety of groups close to Bin Laden.

Utrinski vesnik, a newspaper close to the Social Democratic party,

published the names of the men they claimed were members of Bin Laden's inner circle who had financed the NLA.

The privately-owned newspaper Vest asserted that Bin Laden's fighters took part in the killing of eight Macedonian police and soldiers near the village of Vejce at the beginning of May.

Bin Laden's fighters have also featured heavily on state television, which claimed a direct role between the mujahedin, the killings near Vejce and the fighting in the village of Aracinovo, near Skopje, in June.

The Albanian language media has dismissed the reports and condemned their ethnic Macedonian colleagues for printing such articles.

The daily Flaka described Dnevnik's articles as "typical Macedonian propaganda" aimed at discrediting the Albanian fight for equal rights in the eyes of the West.

Faik Mustafa, Flaka's editor, said the ethnic Macedonian media were using the situation in the United States to link ethnic Albanians with the

Taleban, even though no connection had been established.

"Some people who fight in the NLA have beards and are very religious but they are not Taleban," he said. The editor said he had grilled the NLA leader, Ali Ahmeti, over the presence of mujahedin in his ranks. "He [Ahmeti] said there were none and that the NLA was much more inclined to look to Europe and the United States for support."

Mustafa rubbished the notion of the foreign media reporting the presence of mujahedin within the NLA. "The serious Western media do not deal with this topic," he said.

In fact, the Washington Times published an article in March that claimed Bin Laden had agents in Kosovo and the surrounding region. Another article by Umberto Pascali, which appeared in the publication Executive Intelligence Review, insisted there were links between the KLA in Kosovo and the Taleban, based on drugs trafficking.

Pascalli claimed that as opium production expanded under the Taleban regime in Afghanistan, a Kabul-Pristina "axis" was growing up, funnelling heroin into Europe and the United States.

Similar claims have been voiced in the German magazine Spiegel, as well as by the US Drug Enforcement Administration, DEA, and The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network.

Macedonian politicians have been quick to back reports of Taleban activity in Macedonia, though most have been careful to avoid any assertion that the Saudi dissident had visited the republic in person.

A former interior minister, Pavle Trajanov, said Bin Laden was "present" in Macedonia in the form of Islamic fundamentalism, which he said "has been evident in the Balkans for many years".

Trajanov complained that the US was turning a blind eye to what was happening in the region for geo-political reasons, even though it had evidence that some of Bin Laden's people were around.

The prime minister, Ljubco Georgievski, a member of the VMRO-DPMNE, spoke in a similar vein. In March, he accused the West of sponsoring what he called a "new Taleban" by its refusal to counter the Albanian insurgency in the west of the republic.

Ethnic Macedonian politicians have been disappointed by NATO's refusal to countenance claims of links between the Albanian rebel leader Ahmeti and the Taleban.

"We have no information whatsoever that there has been a direct connection between Ahmeti and Bin Laden," NATO spokesman Mark Laity stated last week. "The only evidence for the presence of the mujahedin in Aracinovo 'are photographs of men with beards, if that is evidence'."

Gordana Iceska is the deputy editor-in-chief of Skopje based weekly Kapital.

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