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NLA Violence Sabotages Talks

Albanian radicals undermine political efforts to resolve the Macedonian crisis as the army prepares for a fresh offensive.
By Saso Ordanoski

Over the past few days, the Macedonian crisis has deepened, with an escalation in the fighing inevitable.


With Albanian radicals seemingly determined to derail on-going political talks, Macedonian forces are preparing to launch a major operation against them, set - according to official sources - for May 4.


At the weekend, eight soldiers and policemen were killed, and several others severely wounded, after a convoy of four military vehicles was ambushed by the National Liberation Army, NLA.


Four of those who died in the attack were buried in the southern town of Bitola on Monday. After the funerals, hundreds of hooligans attacked - and in a number of cases demolished - shops, pubs and restaurants belonging to local Muslims and Albanians. Thirty rioters were arrested. It took police nearly six hours to bring the situation under control.


On Tuesday, May 1, there were similar incidents in Bitola. In Skopje, meanwhile, three masked men, armed with machine guns and baseball bats, attacked the Lozana café, a well-known gathering place of the Albanian opposition. Three people were injured - one of them died on the way to hospital. During the night, a masked man shot at the guard-house outside the Albanian embassy.


This was followed on May 3 by a further ambush in which, according to Macedonian official sources, two soldiers were killed. According to unconfirmed reports from government intelligence services, Albanian fighters kidnapped 20 people from the village of Matejce, and proclaimed a "free territory" in an area near the Lipkovo lake.


A day after the weekend killing of the soldiers and policemen, an unnamed commander of the NLA, in an interview for Deutche Welle, took responsibility for their deaths, accusing the security forces of "getting too close" to Albanian positions.


Local and foreign analysts are asking whose interests are served by these attempts to destabilise the country. To Macedonians, this grave incident is seen as proof that the NLA seeks to undermine the process of inter-ethnic dialogue begun by President Boris Trajkovski after the security crisis in the Tetovo region a month ago.


Macedonians feel the NLA does not really care about improvements in the status of Albanians and their language or in the decentralisation of the state. There is also a belief that they are not truly concerned about possible constitutional reforms. Is it credible, Macedonians wonder, that they would fight an armed insurrection over a few words on a piece of paper that many Albanians may anyway never have read?


While some Albanian leaders in Macedonia have flirted with the NLA, and some younger members of their community have joined rebel forces in Kosovo and the Sara Mountain, others are afraid of them, and few Macedonian Albanians seriously want war.


The NLA has a distinct nationalistic agenda, with strong links to Kosovo, and as events of this week show, Albanian leaders in Macedonia have no real influence over it. The recent killings will only increase suspicion that the radicals' real motivations are either criminal or secessionist.


In any case, the NLA's latest action was well-timed, with Trajkovski travelling to Washington on the invitation of President Bush to discuss special security arrangements.


US support for Macedonia, confirmed by Secretary of State Colin Powell during his visit to Skopje earlier last month, is of great concern to Albanian extremists. They may have hoped that the violence would increase concern for the security of US troops in Kosovo and perhaps compel the administration to look towards further talks with Albanians.


But any such strategy backfired. At a briefing May 1, State Department deputy spokesman Philip Reeker referred to the weekend's "tragic, barbaric terrorist attack" and emphasised that "we will not allow terrorists to derail the political dialogue . . . to have those people sit at a table is unacceptable".


With the NLA facing such strong international pressure, Albanian political forces have adopted a unified stand in multi-party talks on resolving the crisis. They appeared to accept in principle the idea that the ruling coalition should be broadened - to bring in the main Macedonian and Albanian parties currently in opposition - as the authorities, shaken by corruption scandals and party intrigues, are unable to deal with the current political crisis.


According to leaks from a session of an urgently convened meeting of the president's security council last Sunday - attended by key ministers and opposition party leaders - it seems that Macedonian and Albanian parties are warming to the idea of a new government.


Only the Albanian opposition Party for Democratic Prosperity, PDP, is still hesitant over the move. The party is deeply split as a result of its weak leadership, which has been unable to maintain a consistent position on unfolding events.


At the beginning of the crisis, the PDP sympathised with the terrorists - but this gained them nothing, as other Albanian politicians in Macedonia as well as Kosovo, condemned the violence. Now the international community has pressed them to adopt a more constructive political role. But they remain for the moment effectively trapped between their political radicalism on the one hand and their desire to join the government on the other.


Clearly, political extremists in and around Macedonia are anxious to exploit the current instability to further their goals. They fear their time will soon be over, and that they must seize this chance. As a result, they are becoming more aggressive by the day. With nerves jangling on both sides of the ethnic divide, the real question is whether moderate forces will prevail and stop the crisis spinning out of control.


They will have to act fast. According to IWPR sources close to the government, Macedonian security forces are preparing to launch a major operation against the NLA in the west of the country, close to the Kosovo border. The action is expected to start as soon as Trajkovski returns from the US, on May 4. It is possible Washington has already been informed of the plan and that the Macedonian government has requested logistical support.


Saso Ordanoski, editor of Forum magazine, is IWPR project editor in Macedonia.


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