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Wednesday, 9 May, 2001, 13:43 GMT 14:43 UK
Q&A: Macedonia conflict
q and a
BBC News Online provides a guide to the key facts behind the conflict in Macedonia:

Will the coalition bring peace?

If a broad-based administration is formed that includes the two main ethnic Albanian organisations - the Democratic Party of Albanians, coalition partners since the 1998 elections, as well as the Party of Democratic Prosperity - it would weaken public support for the guerrillas among Macedonia's Albanian community.

After all, these two parties received well over 90% of the votes cast by Macedonia's Albanian voters at last elections.

But unless the new grand coalition pushes through a deal that gives the Albanian community more extensive rights, the leading ethnic Albanian politicians might lose their credibility.

Even if the ethnic Albanians secure major concessions that improve their constitutional status, extend the use of their langugage for official purposes and provide better educational facilities, it would still not satisfy a hard core of militants.

The hardliners would probably want to fight on to unite Macedonia's Albanian-inhabited regions with Kosovo and possibly with southern Serbia; or, at the very least, to achieve an autonomous region within Macedonia itself.

It looks unlikely that in the short to medium-term the armed conflict can be brought to a complete end. A more modest objective would be to contain the fighting at the level of a low-intensity conflict, in the hope that if inter-ethnic relations improve over time, violence will no longer be a viable option in the longer run.

What difficulties does it face?

The key question is whether an improbable coalition which brings together the political left and right as well as Macedonian and Albanian nationalists, can actually survive even the nine months envisaged for it before the elections, now scheduled to take place by the end of January 2002.

Parties on either side of the ethnic divide may be reluctant to agree to a compromise deal on extending the ethnic Albanians' collective rights.

An accord that would be seen by Macedonians as giving away too much and by Albanians as being insufficient, would bring the possible signatory parties under considerable pressure from their supporters.

Some of the parties might then decide not to sign the accord. That could trigger the collapse of the coalition and lead to early elections.

And in the run-up to elections, there is always the danger of more strident polemics which, in Macedonia's case, could lead to renewed inter-ethnic tensions.

Who are the rebels?

The rebels fighting in the north-western part of Macedonia call themselves the National Liberation Army (NLA).

Although it emerged only at the beginning of the year, its strength is now put at several hundred fighters, or up to 2,000 according to the higher estimates. The rebels say they are mostly Macedonian-born Albanians.

But their number includes many who fought in Kosovo, in the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), and the group has used Kosovo as a supply base and safe area.

It is the successor to several small cells of ethnic Albanian militants operating in Macedonia since the early 1990s.

There is also an older, established group operating on the Serbia-Kosovo border - the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac (UCPMB) - named after the three municipalities in southern Serbia which have substantial ethnic Albanian populations.

It first emerged at the beginning of 2000 and has several hundred fighters. A somewhat shaky ceasefire has been in place since March.

How did the fighting in Macedonia start?

There were several sporadic incidents in February in and around the ethnic Albanian village of Tanusevci on the northern stretch of the Macedonian border with Kosovo.

In the past such incidents have happened elsewhere, often caused by the Macedonian police's attempts to clamp down on ethnic Albanian smugglers.

However, an attempt by the Macedonian security forces on 26 February to take control of Tanusevci escalated into a lengthy exchange of fire.

Since then, fighting has spread to other parts of the country, first to the mountainous outskirts of Tetovo, the main ethnic Albanian town in Macedonia, and in May to the region around Kumanovo in the north.

What do the rebels want?

There is much in common between the objectives of the Albanian rebels groups in Macedonia and southern Serbia.

Both claim to protect ethnic Albanians from heavy-handed action by the local security forces.

But they also appear to have more wide-ranging goals - although this has been given clearer articulation only by the UCPMB - which involve the annexation by Kosovo of ethnic Albanian-inhabited areas of southern Serbia and possibly of western and northern Macedonia.

Many Macedonians believe the Albanian rebels in Macedonia are also seeking this objective.

But in public the NLA is limiting its demands to holding talks with the Macedonian authorities on securing more extensive rights for Macedonian's Albanians.

Although Kosovo is currently under a United Nations-led administration, ethnic Albanians in the region are hoping it will one day become independent of Yugoslavia.

In effect, the militants are trying to recreate an ethnic Albanian-dominated greater Kosovo by bringing together parts of different entities that, since the break-up of the old Yugoslav federation, have gone their own separate ways.

How organised are they and who is backing them?

The UCPMB has become relatively well-organised in the course of the past 18 months.

It has the advantage of operating in a small, compact area and, most importantly, of having been able - at least until recently - to move around largely with impunity.

That was because much of its zone of operations fell within the 5km-wide ground security zone on Serbia's boundary with Kosovo, from which Yugoslav army and Serbian special forces were barred until March under the deal that ended the conflict in Kosovo.

Though a more recent creation, the UCK has now established itself as a bigger fighting force which has already operated in three different areas of Macedonia.

Macedonia's ethnic Albanian community of more than 500,000 is much larger, though less cohesive than the 70,000 who live in Serbia's Presevo valley.

It is difficult to estimate the extent of public support among local ethnic Albanians for either organisation.

Ethnic-communal solidarity is a strong motivating force among them; but many others are concerned about the effects of violence.

What about support from across the border in Kosovo?

Both groups receive strong backing from the now-disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army on which they have modelled themselves, and whose Albanian-language initials are shared by the armed Albanian group in Macedonia.

Many of the armed men previously fought with the Kosovo Liberation Army; and a substantial part of the supplies reaching them come across the porous border from Kosovo.

What threat do they pose to stability in the region?

An immediate escalation in the fighting in Macedonia, if accompanied by a brutal crackdown by security forces of the kind that led to the anti-Serb uprising in Kosovo three years ago, could radicalise Macedonia's large Albanian population.

And in Macedonia - a small and vulnerable state - the majority Macedonian community feel that within a couple of generations they might be outnumbered by ethnic Albanians.

Besides, the armed groups operating in the Presevo valley and northern Macedonia can put a stranglehold over a section of the main land route from Turkey and part of the Middle East to central Europe and onwards.

How is Nato handling the situation?

It took Nato the best part of a year to wake up to the problem of ethnic Albanian insurgency and begin to rethink the role of the K-For peacekeepers whom it commands in Kosovo.

Its initial response was to act strictly within K-For's mandate - that means inside Kosovo only - for example, by blowing up roads leading to the border to make it less accessible to would-be infiltrators and detain some of them.

Faced with the challenge of protracted fighting in Macedonia, K-For has taken several fresh initiatives.

It has been involved in some clashes with ethnic Albanian guerrillas; it has moved some peacekeeping units on the border with Macedonia that has seen most of the recent fighting.

Since mid-March it has also implemented Nato's amendments to the buffer zone which has made it possible for Yugoslav security forces to move back into most parts of the buffer zone and tackle cross-boundary infiltration.

None of these moves is without risk, and they could inflame the hostility of ethnic Albanians.

But the risk of not taking action - and thereby contributing to a possible escalation in the fighting - has been judged to be even greater.

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See also:

08 Mar 01 | Europe
Nato moves against Kosovo rebels
06 Mar 01 | Europe
Macedonia blasts rebel base
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