Amid the thumping and shrieking of mortar-shells and the unnerving complicity of the international community, thousands of Albanian villagers continue to leave their villages around the northern Macedonian city of Tetovo, chased away by advancing Macedonian troops. On March 26, Macedonian forces claimed that they had recovered several villages from the hands of ethnic Albanian guerrillas. The Macedonian government’s announcement said that its offensive will not stop until “the final takeover of all terrorist positions.” In this roundabout way, Skopje let slip that its army has yet to crush the armed insurgency of ethnic Albanians.
Among the villages captured by the Macedonian army are Gajre, Lavce, Lisec, Drenok, Teke and Selce, where the rebel National Liberation Army (NLA) reportedly maintained its headquarters. After pounding the area for more than a week, the troops, backed by tanks and helicopter-gunships, advanced slowly up the hilly, thickly-forested areas around Tetovo, exchanging fire with the rebels. But the Macedonian victory could only be fleeting. As tanks pushed their way up the hillsides, NLA rebels retreated into the woods. The rebels are expected to regroup and sap the strength of the Macedonian troops by engaging them in skirmishes and hit-and-run attacks.
Estimates of guerrilla numbers vary from 300 to 800 lightly armed fighters. They are relatively well-equipped, battle-hardened and mobile. Many have experience of combat in the Kosova war, during which they served in the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK). They are also believed to maintain supply-bases in Kosova and in the Presevo Valley in south-eastern Serbia. By contrast, the poorly equipped Macedonian army does not seem to have the training, strength or determination needed to conduct a sustained counter-insurgency campaign.
The military gains of the Macedonian army are at best ill-advised. Military solutions can never solve what is essentially a political problem. If anything, the recent offensive will further alienate opinion among the country’s ethnic Albanians, who already feel that they are treated as second-class citizens and that their rights are not respected. The guerrillas have threatened to escalate the conflict if the Macedonian authorities reject their offer of a truce and talks. Recent incidents involving attacks on the police and army patrols in the capital of Skopje indicate the ability of the NLA to widen the scope of the fighting.
Macedonia’s Albanian rebels find themselves in the uneasy position of having to conduct this asymmetrical struggle alone. Mainstream Albanian leaders in Albania, Kosova and even in Macedonia have made clear that they do not back the rebellion. On March 23, the three most influential political leaders in Kosova issued a statement urging “the extremist groups which have taken up arms on the territory of Macedonia to lay them down immediately and to return to their homes peacefully.” These leaders are Ibrahim Rugova, head of the Democratic League of Kosova, Hashim Thaci, head of the Democratic Party of Kosova (also the former political leader of the now-disbanded KLA) and Ramush Haradjinaj, a former KLA leader who heads the smaller Kosova Alliance for the Future. But the statement, which was released under western pressure (it was issued after the Kosovar leaders met with a European Union delegation), does not provide an accurate sense of the support enjoyed by the NLA in Kosova. A few days before it was issued, students held two massive demonstrations in Pristina, the Kosovar capital, in support of the Macedonian Albanians and the NLA insurgency.
There is no doubt that the West is putting its full weight behind Macedonia. EU foreign and security chief Javier Solana and NATO secretary-general George Robertson, made lightning trips to Skopje on March 26 to express their support. The West is actively involved in providing military assistance, and is taking measures to tighten to noose around the NLA. Britain has recently sent ten military advisers to join its three-man team stationed at the Macedonian ministry of defence. On March 21 Geoff Hoon, Britain’s defence secretary, told a press conference that London would consider any Macedonian request for military support.
The US has supplied the Macedonian army with Humvee armed personnel-carriers. The Ukraine has supplied it with two Soviet-designed MI-24 helicopter gunships. The Kosova Protection Force (K-For) has also been supplying the Macedonian army with intelligence on rebel movements and positions. Intelligence on rebel movements is also being gathered by unmanned American, French and German reconnaissance aircraft and drones.
Moreover, NATO forces in Kosova have tried to seal the border with Macedonia to stop men and supplies from trickling through to the NLA. During the past few weeks, K-For troops stationed along the Macedonia-Kosova border have been involved in a series of incidents in which consignments of weapons and supplies intended for the NLA were confiscated. Yet, because of the difficult terrain, NATO is finding it difficult to seal the border completely.
On March 21, Carl del Ponte, UN war-crimes prosecutor for former Yugoslavia, announced that she had launched an investigation into allegations against Albanian groups in Kosova and the Presevo Valley. The announcement came after talks between del Ponte and the Yugoslav and Serb justice ministers.
Western leaders have justified their hostility to the NLA by claiming that the insurgents have a separatist agenda that threatens to the stability of the entire Balkan region. But statements issued by the NLA give the lie to these Western claims. The statements contain no references to separatism or partitioning, and have emphasized that the rebels do not intend to damage the territorial integrity of Macedonia. They stress that their fight is aimed at securing better human rights for ethnic Albanians. The NLA has called for the Macedonian constitution to be amended in order to guarantee equality between the country’s ethnic Albanians and their Macedonian Slav compatriots. The present Macedonian constitution defines the republic as a state of the Macedonians rather than as a multi-ethnic state composed of Macedonians, Albanians, and a host of other minorities such as the Serbs, the Roma, the Turks and others. Nor does it not recognize the Albanian language, which is spoken by more than one-third of the population, as an official language. An earlier communiqué, issued on March 11, had also called for international mediation.
Meanwhile, the Macedonian army’s offensive has caused a humanitarian crisis. Thousands of ethnic Albanians have been forced to leave their villages in the area around Tetovo. Most of them walked for hours through snow-covered mountains terrain to cross the border into Kosova. Many of them related stories of having been deliberately attacked by the Macedonian forces. Some refugees have also told reporters that helicopter-gunships fired on refugees as they made their way through the woods. On March 26, Turkey’s official newsagency Anatolia reported that 7,650 refugees had reached Turkey from Macedonia in the previous 16 days. The refugees are mostly ethnic Albanians and Turks. Many others have also gone to neighbouring Bulgaria.