Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Support for NLA Fighters Grows

A rift between moderate and radical Albanians widens as the Macedonian conflict spreads
By Veton Latifi

Violent clashes between ethnic Albanian fighters and security forces have spread throughout northwestern Macedonia over the past week.


The insurgents, the National Liberation Army, have called on all Albanians in Macedonia to join them in their armed struggle. The interior ministry said it believes NLA supporters have arms caches all over the country and expect the fighting to spread.


The clashes have not only increased divisions between the country's two main ethnic groups but split Albanians themselves.


The majority of the Albanian population, who live mainly in the northwest of the country, had hoped for a political solution to their fight for equality. More and more now seem to be aligning themselves with the armed group.


This became apparent the day fighting around Tetovo erupted on March 14. Centered around the Ottoman fortress of Kale, the shooting broke out just one hour before a planned demonstration in the city's main square.


It turned out to be the first major show of public support for the NLA, deployed a few kilometers away in the hills.


The rally had been organized by NGOs with close links to the opposition Party of Democratic Prosperity, PDP, and the newly formed National Democratic Party, NDP.


Both are dissatisfied with the failure of Arben Xhaferi, the head of the ruling coalition member the Democratic Party of Albanians, DPA, to push through reforms to improve the community's civil and political rights.


DPA supporters at a rally held the day before in Skopje had chanted "We want peace and justice". The Tetovo square demonstrators called for an end to "Macedonian state terror against Albanians".


The latter chanted the name of the insurgents each time they opened fire from the surrounding hills.


The NLA, who first made their existence known following an attack on a police station near Tetovo in January, were recently involved in clashes with security forces along the Macedonian border with Kosovo.


Prior to quitting the frontier village of Tanusevci, they issued their demands: an end to the repression of Albanians and equal rights with Macedonians. "We want to improve the rights of our people who are facing discrimination at the hands of the Slavo-Macedonians," said an NLA statement.


A key element of their demands is a call for a new census which they believe will show Albanians make up 45 per cent of the population - 20 per cent more than the official figure.


The government's unwillingness to include Albanians living or working abroad led to the community's boycott of the last census.


The constitution regards the Albanians as an ethnic minority, but the community claims it is a nation like the Macedonians - and should be treated accordingly.


"Over the last ten years, the Macedonian regime has been hiding under the democracy 'umbrella'," an NLA commander was quoted in the media earlier this week.


" In reality, it has done nothing to improve conditions for Albanians, which is regarded merely as an ethnic minority. Our community has yet to be accorded its rightful status."


While all Albanians have the same goals, they are divided about the way they wish to achieve them. Most are disillusioned with the political path as DPA pledges to improve their lot have failed to materialise


Many of those discontented with the DPA's apparent impotence at driving through reforms are rallying around the newly formed NDP, led by former DPA deputy Kastriot Haxhirexha. The NDP's demands are much the same as those issued by the NLA.


"We have chosen the armed struggle since we have failed to accomplish our goals by political means," said Fazli Veliu, who claims to be the NLA's leader, in an interview given to the Italian news agency, ANSA.


A former teacher, Veliu, in his 60s, is wanted by the authorities in Skopje in connection with terrorist bombing attack in his home town of Krcevo in 1998. He denies the charge.


Interestingly, Veliu has been linked with Kosovan independence organisations. Many NLA fighters were former member of the KLA.


Veliu rejects suggestions the armed struggle is to create greater Albania. "We support the integrity of Macedonia, but want equal rights, our own national flag, language, and identity," he said.


The government has made it clear that it is not willing to negotiate with the NLA. "Macedonia will never negotiate with terrorists," said President Trajkovski at a meeting with foreign ambassadors on March 13.


But if the authorities do not seek some sort of dialogue, there's every chance the violence will escalate.


Before the Tetovo fighting erupted, one NLA commander said the fighters' strategy was to extend the armed conflict to Gostivar and Skopje and other parts of Macedonia.. " The NLA has cells throughout Macedonia - we are a regular army," he declared.


Veton Latifi is a regular IWPR contributor from Macedonia


More IWPR's Global Voices