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Wednesday, 7 March, 2001, 17:46 GMT
Tanusevci flashpoint
villagers fleeing to Kosovo
Villagers have fled to Kosovo to escape the fighting
Balkans correspondent Paul Wood reports on the view from the Macedonian border village where violence flared.

Cradling the baby she had carried across the snowy, heavily-mined border, Rufadije Jakupi told me how she had huddled in a cellar with her children during a three-hour bombardment by the Macedonian security forces.

An American officer later told me he thought the Macedonians had been using Katjusha rockets against Tanusevci, the village the women had fled.

We will not negotiate with terrorist, militarist elements who spread racial and ethnic hatred

Boris Trajkovski, Macedonian President
"The Macedonian army behaves worse than the Serbs ever did in Kosovo," Rufadije told me at the house just inside Kosovo where she is staying with her five children and a group of about 30 other refugees.

Clashes erupted in Tanusevci - just inside Macedonia and overlooking the border with Kosovo - two weeks ago. Ethnic Albanian rebels still held the village, but were surrounded by the Macedonian security forces.

There are several explanations as to why the fighting should have started now, and why it should be in Tanusevci.

I first went to the village almost two years ago. They told me then it would be Macedonia's Prekaz - referring to the place where the ethnic Albanian rebellion began in Kosovo - and events could yet bear out their prediction.

Many Albanians from Tanusevci joined the Kosovo Liberation Army - even though they were Macedonian citizens. It is these men who today form the core of the new group fighting in Macedonia, the National Liberation Army, or NLA.


Tanusevci, with a population of about 800, is completely ethnic Albanian. The Macedonian police and army, who are mainly drawn from the republic's Slav Orthodox population, were never welcome there and the village has often seemed on the edge of violence.

Local people say these current clashes began when the security forces shot dead a 22-year-old ethnic Albanian farmer as he planted his potatoes.

To the villagers and fighters of the NLA, this is a long overdue war of self-defence which started because one day the Macedonian security forces went too far.

This version of events is vigorously denied by the authorities. They point out that three Macedonian soldiers have been killed on the border in recent days.

The authorities say that what is happening is an attempt by ethnic Albanians fighting in Serbia's Presevo Valley to destabilise the whole region by spreading the violence into Macedonia.

What is described as an occupation of Tanusevci by terrorists is seen in Skopje as the result of dissatisfaction, on the part of ethnic Albanians in southern Serbia, with the border demarcation agreement signed by Macedonia and Yugoslavia just a few weeks ago.

'Problem from Kosovo'

The official line in Skopje is that the NLA is a problem from Kosovo, not a Macedonian-based organisation. I have spoken to members of the NLA, and they say this is precisely what they are and they intend widening their campaign to all the ethnic Albanian areas of Macedonia.

Macedonia President Boris Trajkovski
President Trajkovski: no negotiations with 'terrorists'

As with the war in Kosovo, a battle for territory is being presented to the West as simply a struggle for human rights. The unstated aim is for all ethnic Albanians, from southern Serbia, through Kosovo and Macedonia to Albania itself, to be able to live in one state: "Greater Albania".

The rebels do not have international support for this and the outside world is backing the Macedonian government in its efforts to maintain stability in the republic.

In a dramatic and hard-hitting speech to parliament, the Macedonian President, Boris Trajkovski, said he would not give up one single metre of the republic's territory to "extremists and terrorists". "We will not negotiate with terrorist, militarist elements who spread racial and ethnic hatred," he added.

One view is that the Macedonian Government is deliberately playing down the origins of the NLA, not wanting to lend them credibility by giving the organisation a name and status.

The Macedonian Army behaves worse than the Serbs ever did in Kosovo

Rufadije Jakupi, Albanian refugee
Others have put forward a rather Balkan conspiracy theory, which is that the Macedonian Government provoked the clashes in Tanusevci because it needed a crisis to distract attention from a burgeoning bugging and telephone-tapping scandal at home.

There is no evidence for this, or for another story, which is that the fighting began as a dispute between ethnic Albanian and Macedonian Mafia gangs over the division of profits from the smuggling of cigarettes.

Macedonia's Albanians

Macedonia does have a multi-ethnic government which includes an ethnic Albanian party.

Honour guard for Macedonian soldier
Three Macedonian soldiers died in recent border clashes
"They [the NLA] have not found support from any Albanian political structures, starting from the government of Albania to the smallest political parties," said Menduh Thaci, deputy leader of the Democratic Party of Albanians, the biggest Albanian political party in Macedonia.

This may be true - but in Kosovo, the Kosovo Liberation Army did not have support from the biggest ethnic Albanian political party.

There are nevertheless worrying signs that the violence in Macedonian may be escalating.

So far, the country has remained untouched by the ethnic conflict which devastated other former Yugoslav republics. But people there are now asking if they will be next.

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See also:

07 Mar 01 | Europe
US troops in Kosovo border clash
07 Mar 01 | Europe
Yugoslavia may help stop rebels
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