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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:

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Transcript:


Newshost:

Peter you have just returned today to the capital Skopje from Tetovo where you have been for the last ten 10 days, what has it been like there?


Peter Biles:

When we arrived in Tetovo the Saturday before last, which was just two or three days after the conflict had begun, it was extremely tense in the centre of town. The day before a mortar round had come in from the rebel positions and landed virtually in the town square.

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.


Bondy, Paris, France:

I was based in Tetovo for six weeks during the NATO bombing of Kosovo working as a journalist. There were many people from Kosovo living with their relatives in Tetovo during this time, it was better than living in a refugee camp. None of the Albanian people we met during this time complained about the Macedonian government, most were happy that it remained an island of peace for them. What has changed in the past two years?


Peter Biles:

Well fundamentally what has changed is that a group of extremists have taken up arms against the Macedonian state. But I think it is fair to say that even two years and before that time, the Albanian population of Macedonia - which makes up anything between one-quarter and one-third of the population depending on which figures you want to believe - have felt somewhat discriminated against. Some people say that they are treated as second-class citizens.

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.


Josette Baer, Zurich, Switzerland:

Is there any evidence on plans for establishing a Greater Kosovo instead of a Greater Albania? Have the rebels connections with UCK and if so, how do these connections influence their political plans?


Peter Biles:

A Greater Kosovo is not something that is talked about very often but you do hear the phrase "a Greater Albania". Now by a Greater Albania we are talking about essentially an Albanian entity in which Albanian areas of the region - Albania itself of course - Albanian proper, Kosovo - where the population is 90% Albanian, Macedonia - where the population is one-quarter or one-third Albanian and even other parts such as Southern Serbia - there are small enclaves there. The idea that all of these areas could become a single entity thereby creating a Greater Albania - as far as the rebels are concerned - the UCK - that was also the acronym used by the Kosovo Liberation Army during the war in Kosovo two years ago. In this context, in the Macedonian conflict, it means something different. It means the National Liberation Army. Now to some extent, the feeling is that the rebels here in Macedonia are a home-grown organisation. The Macedonian Government alleges that there is outside support and that the rebels use Kosovo as a rear base and have come across the border from 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.


Steve Lozanovski, Australia (14 years old Macedonian):

Are the Albanians that live in Tetovo helping or joining the rebels?


Peter Biles:

It is hard to say. If you go up into some of the predominately Albanian villages, just on the lower slopes of the hillside overlooking Tetovo, and you talk to families there - there certainly is sympathy for the cause of improving Albanian rights and certainly young people expressed a desire to join up and fight with the rebels. To what extent they have been doing so is hard to say. The rebel movement - the NLA - is quite small. Most people reckon it may only be a few hundred fighters and it is around Tetovo that this conflict has been concentrated for the best part of the last two weeks. But of course there are other areas - there was fighting last weekend not very far from Skopje but again up near the border with Kosovo.

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.


Angela, London, England:

I have watched the current reporting from the Balkans with amusement. Although many reporters are excellent, some seem to find it difficult not to take sides. Have you found this in your experience, and do you find any differences in the way Albanians and Macedonians react and communicate with the international media presence.


Peter Biles:

Well on the question of reporting this is always a problem with any kind of conflict reporting. You are bound to have reporters on either side of the front lines and whichever side you happen to be on the politicians and the military leaders on the other side are almost certain to object to what they are hearing from a reporter or a correspondent on the opposing side. They are inevitably going to feel that that correspondent is biased in favour of the enemy - the group that they are fighting against. It is almost a no-win situation for correspondents and nothing has changed in that respect. So for example, if correspondents had been spending time with the rebels up in the hills - with the National Liberation Army - the Macedonians didn't like that.

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.


Dominic Hipkins, Oberwart, Austria:

How much support did the NLA, in their previous guise as KLA "freedom fighters", receive from NATO Governments? Did we create Frankenstein only to find that now we cannot control him?


Peter Biles:

There is no doubt of the Kosovo Liberation Army two years ago in Kosovo did receive certainly some international help. Nato came to their aid in the sense that they bombed the Serbs for 11 weeks - from March until May of 1999. It is also understand that various special international forces were inside Kosovo at various times - in what capacity it is never quite clear - but certainly assisting and advising the KLA and in some cases providing them with various pieces of equipment.

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.


Vincent Chirco, San Jose USA:

What is the general perception within Yugoslavia concerning the present state of affairs in Macedonia.


Peter Biles:

Well I haven't been to Yugoslavia myself recently but I am quite sure that they are watching the situation extremely carefully. They have kept something of a low profile - not much has been said in Belgrade about this. But remember there is a small Albanian population in Southern Serbia and there have been problems on that area along the border between Kosovo and Southern Serbia. This is why the Yugoslav Army was invited in by Nato, K-FOR, to try and secure that area and make it more difficult for any kind of ethnic Albanian uprising to gather momentum.


Chris, Windsor, Canada:

What is the Yugoslav Army doing now that they were allowed back into Kosovo?


Peter Biles:

They haven't been allowed into Kosovo itself - they have been allowed into this buffer zone along the border between Kosovo and Southern Serbia and that came specifically at the invitation of Nato. Nato only has a mandate to operate in Kosovo. It's mandate doesn't extend to going across the border into Southern Serbia nor did it extend into Macedonia. So, a couple of weeks ago, when the Macedonians were saying they wanted Nato to do more there was never any question that Nato was going to come across the border into Macedonia and help the Macedonian forces in their fight against the rebels. But what Nato can do is to secure the borders from the Kosovo side.


Daniel Langenkamp, Cambridge, USA:

Would you say that the international community has failed in preventing this conflict, when it was clear that tensions between Albanians and Macedonians had been running high for years?


Peter Biles:

Yes, to some extent there have tensions between the two communities. The international community though has done a great deal to support Macedonia - a lot of money has been pumped into this state. Karl Bilt, the UN special envoy for the Balkans, was here just a couple of weeks ago, describing Macedonia as, in many ways, a success story for the Balkans. It is an emerging democracy - it had ten years of peace since independence - it broke away from the rest of Yugoslavia peacefully in 1991 and it has been hailed as a model almost of a multi-ethnic state that other states in the Balkans should look up to.

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.


Michael Srbljanin, England:

Why is it that the Macedonian authorities are being given free rein to end this action by military means when a similar action by the Yugoslav government against their ethnic Albanian rebels resulted in the Kosovo "war" - can this happen here as well?


Peter Biles:

They have been given free rein to defend themselves against, what they regard as, extremists - people who aren't interested in political dialogue. The Macedonians certainly are not intending to have any negotiations with these rebels from the NLA who have been on the outskirts of Tetovo for the past two weeks and more.

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.


Dragoslav Culum, Banja Luka, Republika Srpska:

How are the so-called terrorists in Macedonia right now different from the terrorists from Kosovo, last year? Why are the EU and NATO supporting Macedonia right now when they clearly supported Albanian extremists in Kosovo?


Peter Biles:

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.


Arianit Celaj, London, UK:

With regard to the shooting incident of the two Albanian civilians, on Thursday the 22nd of March. Different footages show the civilians being shot at long after they were disabled (i.e. badly wounded and lying down). Was this, in your opinion, excessive use of force? Is the Macedonian police trigger-happy or are they plainly scared and in "panic-mode"?


Peter Biles:

Well I can tell you what happened that day because we arrived on the scene literally a couple of minutes after the shooting had happened. It was a police and army checkpoint down at the base of the town and car had come past - cars were being checked. There were two people in a car, they were stopped and challenged by the special police who were there. At that point one of the men got out of the car and the policeman there believed that the man had some sort of explosive device.

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.


Newshost:

You reported live on the Macedonian Army offensive on Sunday morning - that offensive is now over - what do you think is likely to happen now?


Peter Biles:

The military offensive is over according to the Macedonians and now we move onto the political development. The former Nato Secretary-General Javier Solana, who is now the European Union Foreign policy and security chief has been in Macedonia three times in the past week - he has been up to Tetovo. He is hopeful that this crisis is now over but there is a lot of work to do on the political front and that involves negotiations addressing the grievances which the Albanian community do have in Macedonia. While at the same time ensuring that there is a proper dialogue with moderate Albanian politicians and that there is no recurrence of the military threat from the extremists in the hills. It is hard to say what their next move will be - it depends to what extent they have been disbanded by the events of the past two days but we shall just have to wait and see.

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