NATO Confronts Albanian Rebels

NATO intervenes along the Macedonian border in a bid to curb escalating violence in the region

NATO Confronts Albanian Rebels

NATO intervenes along the Macedonian border in a bid to curb escalating violence in the region

Sporadic mortar fire and bursts from automatic rifles reverberated around the frontier village of Tanusevac, where the Macedonian army is battling against members of the Albanian guerrilla movement, the National Liberation Army.

As the fighting raged, a contingent of American NATO troops stepped up its monitoring of the crisis. KFOR tanks rumbled into the nearby village of Debeldeh on the Kosovo side of the border. A reconnaissance drone flew high overhead, as two Apache helicopters swooped low, sometimes hovering in the air for more than an half an hour.

American troops blocked the entrance to Debeldeh to prevent the Albanian militants moving back and forth across the frontier. They laid barbed wire along a dusty road and around 150 of them deployed close to Tanusevci, from where they surveyed the frontier with enormous binoculars.

The NATO intervention along the Macedonian border follows an agreement on Sunday between senior KFOR commanders and top UN Kosovo officials.

The NATO activity was the first sign that Alliance officials recognise the severity of the crisis unfolding here. On Sunday, three Macedonian soldiers were killed in the fighting which has escalated over the past two weeks. NATO is now keen to stop the violence from spreading.

In the Tanusevac area, KFOR sources estimate there are around 300 Albanian insurgents who are dependent on the help of locals to cross the border.

Macedonia, which has a sizeable Albanian minority, is considered regional powder-keg. Many fear the Tanusevac insurgency could quickly spread to other parts of predominantly Albanian inhabited Western Macedonia.

Macedonian politicians claim KFOR's failure to disarm Albanian militants in Kosovo has allowed the conflict in southern Serbia to spill over the border into Macedonia. They believe the extremists are moving freely because NATO is not willing to risk the lives of its soldiers.

NATO, EU and other Balkan diplomats are engaged in frenzied diplomatic activity to try to stop the crises spreading.

Russian President Vladimir Putin held talks with his Macedonian counterpart Boris Trajkovski on Sunday and promised that he would do his utmost to prevent an escalation.

And on Monday, Bulgarian President Petar Stojanov offered to reinforce the Macedonian army with Bulgarian troops.

Macedonia, meanwhile, has called up all its police reservists, while the army has begun a partial mobilisation.

The border with Kosovo has been sealed off for two days. Hundreds of lorries and buses are waiting on both sides of the frontier.

Foreign and local journalists accompanied KFOR tanks into Debeldeh. They are staying in the local school, from where they can see everything.

KFOR spokesman Jim Marshall said that over the past 24 hours Alliance troops had seen many people dressed in black uniforms crossing from Macedonia into Kosovo. Marshall said they enter local buildings and leave wearing civilian clothes. He insisted that efforts would be made to detain them and confiscate their weapons.

Local people watched the KFOR activity intently. They were joined by a group of refugees from Tanusevac who said they'd never set eyes on members of the National Liberation Army. Albanians here are convinced the Macedonians are to blame for everything.

Tanusevac resident Qazim Jakupi, who fled to Debeldeh two weeks ago with his entire family, said KFOR should restrain the Macedonian army and police.

From a local schoolyard, he watched the battle raging around his village. "Only the old and sick stayed behind," he said. "Our cattle are there. We don't know what's happening. I want to know what's happening with my property and animals, but the Americans won't let us cross the border."

Some locals resent KFOR suggestions that they are aiding and abetting the Albanian militants. "Americans warned us that unless the village gives up its weapons voluntarily, they will search our homes," said one man.

Yesterday evening, the Macedonian army and police launched a fierce attack on Tanusevac, forcing the guerrillas to mount a partial withdrawal. According to KFOR sources, around 150 armed Albanians retreated. Some of them were detained by Alliance troops.

They also searched several houses in Debeldeh and arrested three Albanians . One of them was in uniform and had been monitoring KFOR movements in the area. And today American soldiers shot and injured two rebels near the border village of Mijak.

Meanwhile, there were unconfirmed reports that Arben Xhaferi, president of the Democratic Party of Albanians in Macedonia, together with representatives of Albanians in Kosovo and the National Liberation Army have been holding talks behind closed doors in Pristina.

IWPR source says the subject of this meeting was the total withdrawal of rebel forces from Tanusevac. If this proves to be true, then it is obvious that the Albanian political forces are trying to resolve the escalating crisis - and were probably prompted by NATO's intervention along the border.

Nehat Islami is IWPR project manager in Pristina

Macedonia, Serbia, Kosovo
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