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Thursday, 29 March, 2001, 12:20 GMT 13:20 UK
BBC correspondent quizzed on Macedonia
Tensions are running high in Macedonia and violence has continued around Tetovo, the country's second largest city.
The Macedonian army says it will take up positions on the border with neighbouring Kosovo, and drive out ethnic Albanian rebels.
But the rebels have said they will escalate the conflict if the Macedonian authorities reject their offer of a truce, and there are fears that the violence will spread.
How can the crisis be resolved? Can a political solution be found which would defuse the risk of a slide into war? What action can Nato take to improve the situation?
The BBC's Peter Biles is in Macedonia joined us on Tuesday for a live forum.
To watch coverage of the forum, select the link below:
That first weekend, the Macedonian security forces continued to pound the hillsides above Tetovo where the rebels had their positions. These hills are very close to Tetovo; they rise very steeply and you don't have to go very far out of the town to be halfway up a hillside and looking down with a bird's eye view. It is only when you get up into the hills that you appreciate also how many houses and residential areas there are up there.
Within a couple of days this security force operation continued and people down in the town were becoming quite used to it in many ways - going about their business as usual and with normal amounts of traffic on the road. It then became apparent that the Macedonian security forces were not able to flush the rebels out of their positions and that they were going to have to leave Tetovo itself and go up into the hills in pursuit of the rebels if they were going to achieve their aim of crushing the guerrillas.
We then reached the period of last weekend and it became clear that the Macedonians were preparing for an all out offensive. There was a helicopter gun ship strike late on Saturday afternoon - perhaps just a little warning to the rebels of what was to come.
I woke up at about 5.30 on Sunday morning to find a long convoy of armoured vehicles going past the hotel that we were staying in and literally on the stroke of 7 o'clock the Macedonians opened up with a much more intense barrage. It really was an all out offensive and that was the start of a full day of constant tank and mortar fire and the use of helicopter gun ships once again.
By Monday evening, the Macedonians were saying that that operation had been a success and that the rebels had withdrawn from their hilltop positions.
However, having said that, it is very important to stress that the situation in Macedonia is not a repeat of what happened in Kosovo. It is actually a very different situation.
In Kosovo two years ago when Nato began its bombing campaign, there was a virtual state of apartheid existing for the majority Albanian population who had been discriminated against by the Serbs for many, many years. That is not the case here in Macedonia where Albanians do have a voice - they have a political voice. There are Albanian Ministers in the coalition government and certainly many people here would say it is grossly unfair to make any kind of direct comparison with the plight of Albanians in this country compared with the situation in Kosovo.
I think what has happened is that when the KLA began its fight against the Serbs, many Albanians in Macedonia went to fight and join the KLA. After that war was over in 1999, they came back to Macedonia and they perhaps thought to themselves - well look what we did for the rights of Albanians in Kosovo, let us see if we can't start something similar here.
But certainly yes, I am sure people have left Macedonia and have gone to join the NLA. What has happened is that they have been pushed back from those hilltops over Kosovo. The Macedonians say they have been driven back into Kosovo itself and there they will become the problem of K-FOR - the international peacekeeping troops led by Nato. Until such time as Nato secures the border and prevents any further infiltration of Macedonia from Kosovo.
But down on the streets in Tetovo where I have been for the last 10 days, I can tell you that the situation is not particularly polarised in the town itself. You don't really get a sense that the Albanian and Macedonian communities are at each other's throats all the time or even lead particularly separate lives.
But the Macedonians do harbour some resentment against the Albanians. They tend to say that the Albanian community always like to regard themselves as Albanian first and as Macedonian second. Whereas the Macedonia community feel that they should be standing up for the state in a much greater way.
As far as the situation on the ground in Tetovo is concerned, things have become more radicalised and polarised and that is a concern that the government felt as this conflict began to develop. There was the feeling that if the whole situation spiralled out of control, more and more members of the Albanian community could become radicalised and extend more sympathy to the rebels.
Again this comes back to the question of the difference between Kosovo and the situation here in Macedonia. There now appears to be absolutely no support or sympathy for the fighters of the NLA here in Macedonia because they are generally regarded as terrorists - that is the word that the Macedonians use to describe them and it is the word that many members of the international community have used as well.
The European Union, Nato, the United States and even Russia they have all come to the support of the Macedonian Government. They say that Macedonia has to right to defend itself. It is a democracy, which was not the case in Kosovo and in Serbia at the time and that the Macedonians have the right to defend their territorial integrity and that in this fight against the extremists that the extremists must be isolated and maginalised.
This conflict has changed the situation somewhat but the international community still wants to give as much support as it can to Macedonia. They want to make sure that this violence doesn't spread because everyone knows that once that sort of violence becomes endemic there is always the possibility of it becoming a much wider Balkan conflict.
The situation generally is that the Macedonians decided they would launch this all-out offensive, which began on Sunday and hopefully push back the rebels and the word they used was "eliminate", the rebel movement.
To some extent they have done that in that they have pushed them back but of course this does not mean that the problem has gone away. Perhaps some of the rebels have moved to other areas of the countryside and perhaps it is even conceivable that they have taken off their uniforms and slipped back into towns like Tetovo from where they perhaps came from in the first place.
The Macedonians were praised by the Nato Secretary-General, George Robertson, for using military restraint. It didn't seem like that at the time, on Sunday when we watched the barrage against the hillside and the way in which the Macedonians went up the hill in pursuit of the rebels. But there weren't any civilian casualties of any note and that is why Nato and other members of the international community have commended Macedonia for using some restraint and not pushing on and risking the possibility of huge numbers of civilian casualties - that simply hasn't happened.
I think it is fair to say that there was fairly widespread support among the Albanian community in Kosovo for the KLA and for what it was fighting for. The population of Kosovo, certainly before the war, was 90% Albanian and about 10% Serb and certainly almost everybody that you spoke to in the Albanian community there in Kosovo two years ago, said they were fully behind the KLA.
Now that is not the case here in Macedonia with the rebels who have been on the outskirts of Tetovo - they are very much a minority and an extremist group who do not have general support. There are of course moderate Albanian political leaders who have a voice in parliament and the international community and the Macedonian government appreciate the need to keep those moderates within the system and not to isolate and antagonise them and lead them to extend more sympathy to the rebel movement.
If you look at the photographs and film footage you will see the policeman turning away from the man and running for cover - clearly terrified that whatever he thought it was - a grenade of whatever - was about to explode and the man raised his arm as though to throw it. Now some people have suggested that it was only a mobile telephone he had in his hand but closer examination does seem to support the suspicion that it was some kind of grenade. At that point the Macedonian security forces opened the fire on that man and his companion in the car - it was a father and son.
As for the use of force, in a situation like that - extremely volatile and unpredictable - I think security forces anywhere would probably have taken the action that they did to defend themselves if they thought that a grenade was about to be lobbed into one of their bunkers.
23 Mar 01 | Europe
Macedonia rebels urged to end fighting
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