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Runica Investigation Urged

Skopje officials dismiss report implicating army in attack on Albanian civilians.
By Gordana Stojanovska

The Macedonian authorities have rejected claims that the armed forces deliberately burned down a village in north-west Macedonia and assaulted many of its inhabitants.


The defence ministry said the allegations by the New York-based humanitarian group Human Rights Watch, HRW, contained in a report released on May 29, were simply not true.


Defence Minister Vladimir Buckovski told IWPR that he would be able to prove that the army was not responsible for the outrage in the village of Runica. "The army is always attempting to protect civilians and our response to terrorist provocation is never disproportionate," he said.


HRW have based their report on the testimony of villagers who fled the area. They told the group that Macedonian security forces starting shelling their village without warning in the early hours of May 21. Soon after, they started to leave. They say soldiers entered the village, beat civilians and set fire to around 50 houses as well as the school and mosque.


"The Macedonian forces broke down the door and right away started beating us, kicking us with their feet and with the butts of their guns," Advie Hamidi told HWR representatives, " I don't know how many times I was hit, with fists, with guns ..."


She described how Macedonian security forces put guns to her husband's and son's heads and poured petrol over them. HRW representative Fred Abrahams told IWPR that his team had seen villagers with extensive bruising from the alleged beatings.


But Macedonian military representatives say locals themselves had requested they enter the village because National Liberation Army, NLA, members had been mistreating them. " The terrorists are not gentle people - what else could we expect from them," said Ministry of Defence spokesman Gorgi Trendafilov.


By the time military arrived most of the villagers had already crossed over the border to Kosovo, said an army spokesmen, Colonel Blagoja Markovski, who claimed soldiers evacuated seven residents by helicopter. "There's no logic in rescuing civilians and burning their village," he said.


Trendafilov blamed the violence on retreating NLA fighters. "We saw them setting civilian buildings on fire" he said.


"It is not impossible that the terrorists staged these events in order to draw the attention of foreign organisations and gain support from the international public," said SDSM, Socialist Democratic Alliance of Macedonia, member Radmila Sekerinska.


Villagers told HRW, however, that there had never been any terrorists in their village.


"These crimes must be impartially investigated and those responsible brought to account," said HRW regional executive director Holly Cartner, a view which didn't attract much sympathy from the defence ministry in Skopje. Trendafilov said no inquiry was necessary but that he would carry one out if the government demanded it.


Meanwhile, Abrahams believes an investigation is the right starting point. "We are ready to admit a mistake," he said. "However, if the government have any evidence they should make it public."


VMRO-DPMNE deputy Jordan Boskov agreed that parliament should look into these reports but only when the fighting had been brought to an end. "We cannot initiate an investigation while grenades are still falling," he said. " There is a war going on over there."


Reaction in the media has been fairly low key as has that from Albanian parties currently serving in the coalition government. But Party of Democratic Prosperity deputy Abduladi Vejseli said that although they had no information about the Runica episode they knew of similar incidents.


Vejseli says that he has failed to convince fellow deputies of the need to launch an inquiry into the Runica allegations. "We are part of the government but nobody consults with us about anything," he said.


Gordana Stojanovska Icevska is the deputy editor-in-chief of Kapital


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