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Thursday, 15 March, 2001, 15:58 GMT
Nato's Macedonian headache
Yugoslav units deploy in the buffer zone
Yugoslav units have been allowed into parts of the buffer zone
By defence correspondent Jonathan Marcus

The continuing violence inside Macedonia between government forces and ethnic Albanian fighters threatens to destabilise efforts to bring a wider peace to the region.

Nato had hoped that its security measures on the Kosovo-Macedonia border would dampen down the fighting, but instead they seem to simply have moved it elsewhere.

The warming of ties between Nato and Belgrade has placed the plight of ethnic Albanians centre-stage in the Balkans - and it is a difficult issue for the West to handle.

Ethnic Albanians
Ethnic Albanians say their human rights are threatened
The ethnic Albanian rebels claim to be fighting for their human rights.

But the Macedonian Government says the current fighting represents the greatest threat to their country since its independence some 10 years ago, and Nato is urgently reviewing what help it can give.

Improved liaison

In addition to stepping up border patrols, Nato troops have improved liaison and intelligence exchanges between front line Nato units and their Macedonian counterparts.

Rebels
The rebels have managed to slip through the net
The Alliance has also allowed Yugoslav troops to deploy into a small part of the buffer zone between Serbia and Kosovo in an effort to close the door - as Nato puts it - on an ethnic Albanian supply route into Macedonia.

But this has had the effect of only squeezing ethnic Albanian fighters out of one area into another - and the Macedonian police and army seem ill-equipped to deal with the problem.

Nato is watching events closely. Diplomats are seeking to play down the sense of drama, insisting that the numbers of ethnic Albanian fighters operating in Macedonia is small.

Instability threat

But the potential for greater instability is clear. Indeed with the political changes in Belgrade and Nato's growing contacts with the Yugoslav authorities there are major new questions that affect the whole region.

Kfor soldier
Nato is keeping a close eye on the situation
The biggest of these is Kosovo's future. Most of its ethnic Albanian majority want full independence, but there are real fears that this would just encourage Albanian separatism elsewhere.

Such questions were unthinkable as long as Mr Milosevic was in power in Belgrade.

But with democracy on the march in Serbia, Nato governments are going to have to start seriously thinking about how they see the future of the Balkans.

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See also:

14 Mar 01 | Europe
Macedonia conflict escalates
15 Mar 01 | Europe
In pictures: Macedonia rebellion
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