Macedonia Backgrounder

- and the Americans in Aracinovo



Scott Taylor  


TETOVO, Macedonia - August 09, 2001

As international envoys and Macedonian government officials try to hammer out a last-minute peace deal in the holiday resort Ohrid, fighting and violence continues to escalate across the country. On Wednesday, the ethnic-Albanian rebels (UCK) mounted a major offensive to cut the main highway between the capital of Skopje and the city of Tetovo.

After suffering heavy casualties - 10 dead and 14 wounded in an ambush - Macedonian Security forces battled throughout the night to regain control of this vital route. Helicopter gunships pounded rebel villages and armoured columns inched their way up steep mountain paths to engage the UCK. By Thursday morning the highway was proclaimed secure, but a handful of still smoldering vehicles bore stark testimony to the violence of the previous day's attacks.

Angered by the news of the initial ambush, mobs of Macedonian citizens took to the streets to ransack ethnic-Albanian shops in Skopje. This action then prompted Albanians to unleash an indiscriminant fusillade of small arms fire into the Macedonian suburbs of Tetovo. "As the peace talks stall, this cycle of hatred is gaining momentum and we are plunging head first into civil war," said Vojce Stojkoski, a 47-year-old ethnic-Bulgarian contractor based in Tetovo. "Even if the politicians sign an agreement, I don't believe either side can be prevented from continuing the violence."


The motives behind the fighting

When this conflict first erupted in March, the stated objective of the Albanian minority leaders was to achieve "increased autonomy" through "revisions to the Macedonian constitution". However, after five months of successful military action, the Albanians have gained virtual control of 30% of Macedonian territory. Hard-line Albanian leaders are now dealing from a position of strength at the Ohrid talks, and many of their followers feel that outright autonomy is now possible.

Arta Gylanize, a 38-year-old political assistant with the Albanian Democratic Party said she hoped her leader, Arben Djaferi, would refuse to sign the agreement. "This land was once all part of Greater Albania and we should not have to live under Macedonians," said Gylanize.

Over the last few weeks, the Macedonian government has conceded to nearly all of the major ethnic-Albanian reforms proposed at Ohrid, and this has drawn severe criticism from the Slavic majority. The complex arrangement proposed to recognize Albanian as an official language in regions of Macedonia where they "constitute over 20% of the population" has been denounced as "unworkable" in the local press.

However, in response to the decision to recruit 1000 ethnic-Albanian police, the Macedonian police reacted violently. Following a drunken rampage at a local pub in Tetovo, the Macedonian Police who created the destruction were unrepentant. "How are we supposed to react to the news that we will be serving alongside the same criminals that we've been fighting for months?" said Rade Jolevski, a 22-year-old police reservist in Tetovo. "How do we justify this to our dead comrades?"

President Boris Trjkovski is regarded as the Macedonian moderate who is pursuing a policy of appeasement, while Prime Minister Ljubo Georgievski, from the same ruling Unity Party, has emerged as the hard-line nationalist. Macedonian extremists have now organized a paramilitary movement called the Lions, and they are echoing Georgievski's call for a military victory prior to any appeasement measures.


Macedonia's defence capability

At the beginning of the hostilities, the Macedonian Security Forces were woefully ill equipped to combat insurrection. As part of the agreement for a peaceful secession from Yugoslavia in 1992, the Republic of Macedonia turned over all their heavy weapons to the withdrawing Federal Yugoslav Army. Over the past nine years, a bankrupt treasury and a struggling economy prevented any large-scale military buildup.

As a result, when the Albanian UCK guerillas first encroached from Kosovo last March, the Macedonian Security Forces were hard-pressed to contain even this limited offensive. Equipped with an array of old cast-off weaponry and vehicles, and fielding an inexperienced army of conscripts, the Macedonians suffered a number of embarrassing tactical setbacks.

From that point forward, the government has been hastily trying to bolster its fighting forces with lend lease modern equipment and foreign mercenaries. Despite pressure from the European Union to desist from such an arms buildup, the Macedonians have tried desperately to keep pace with the concurrent UCK mobilization. At present, the Macedonian military possesses a relatively powerful punch from attack helicopters, fighter jets, and modern armoured vehicles. "The majority of these weapons were acquired in exchange for tomatoes and wine from the Ukraine," said Rade Lesko, a defence reporter with Skopje-based Skynet TV.

Over the past week, both Javier Solana and George Robertson, the Secretary-Generals of the European Union and NATO respectively, have made direct interventions to the Ukraine to cut off this flow of weapons and munitions. "It is unbelievable that they will try to keep us from arming our soldiers, and yet these same 'peace' envoys‚ do not publicly admonish the United States for the blatant equipping of the UCK," said Lesko. The direct provision of military aid, advisors, and intelligence to the UCK has provoked a number of violent anti-US riots here in Macedonia.


Aracinovo and the American contribution to the Albanian fighters

In late June, with the UCK guerillas in the village of Aracinovo threatening to overrun the Skopje airport, the Macedonian Security forces were able to employ their superior firepower and achieve a rare victory. As they closed the tactical noose around the UCK enclave, EU pressure allowed American troops to intercede and evacuate the guerrillas. When the UCK were later released, still armed and still inside Macedonia, the American embassy (and many NATO embassies) were stormed and vandalized.

The UCK are quick to acknowledge the US military support that they receive. Commander "Mouse," a 47-year-old UCK officer in the Tetovo sector shouted "God Bless America and Canada too for what they have given us!" While he would not elaborate on Canada's contribution, "Mouse" confirmed that two US Chinook Heavy Transport Helicopters had delivered weapons to the UCK in the hills above Tetovo.

When the Macedonian government first protested this action, the US official statement was that only humanitarian aid had been airlifted to a remote Albanian village. Commander "Mouse" contradicted the US explanation by admitting that "heavy mortars and munitions" had in fact been supplied by the Chinooks. "We now have all the equipment and men we need to capture Skopje in 24 hours," said Commander "Jimmy", a 22-year-old Albanian guerrilla who is already a veteran of Chechnya, Kosovo, and South Serbia. "Militarily, the Macedonians are no match for our soldiers."

As part of the Ohrid peace plan, once signed, NATO would deploy a force of peacekeepers into Macedonia to disarm the UCK. A force of nearly 3 000 NATO troops have already been assembled in Thessalonika, Greece and are only awaiting a diplomatic agreement before deploying. Given the recent fighting, the UCK are reluctant to comply with the immediate disarming clause.

"We will only hand over our weapons when we are sure that NATO is prepared to protect us," said Commander "Jimmy". Under the present terms of the agreement, NATO forces will not be committed indefinitely, and therefore the Albanians are unlikely to abide by the demilitarization of their troops.

For these guerrillas, any relinquishing of the territory they‚ve captured will be a bitter pill to swallow. In the nearly 30% of Macedonian territory under UCK controls, these fighters are regarded as heroes by the local population. Virtually every able-bodied Albanian male voluntarily assists the UCK through the provision of logistic support and intelligence gathering.

Following Wednesday's ambush on the Skopje/Tetovo highway, the Macedonians attempted to encircle the guerillas with an armoured column. Hundred of civilian Albanians served as watchers in the woods to report, via cell phone, every movement of the convoy. The UCK were easily able to escape the Macedonian trap. "It is like the US marines trying to fight the Vietnamese - only the Albanians have cellular phones," said Goran Stefanovic, a 36-year-old sergeant in the paramilitary Macedonian Wolves. "We can only try to defend those areas inhabited by a [Slavic] majority."

Morale has been plummeting throughout the frontline Macedonian security forces, particularly here in the increasingly desperate Tetovo sector. The UCK now roam freely within the city at night and control the high ground during the day. The Macedonians rarely mount vehicle patrols and remain in their heavily sandbagged bunkers. The Macedonian minority population in the Tetovo region have been leaving their homes since the fighting flared up again in July - and it is now estimated that over 30 000 refugees have fled. Since Wednesday's fierce firefights, the UCK have several times managed to cut the Tetovo/Skopje highway. However, whenever the road is declared "secure" another flood of Macedonians depart in search of refuge.

"The army is unable to protect us and the government seems to have given up on Tetovo," said Sasha Petroska, a 26-year-old teacher. "Many of us have applied to the Canadian Embassy in Skopje for refugee status, but they refuse to accept that anyone is a refugee except Albanians."

For those few non-Albanians who remain in Tetovo, the artillery fire continues unabated and each radio broadcast is eagerly anticipated for news of relief. It is rumoured that the Macedonian army will launch a major counter-attack within the next few days. There has been a steady build-up of armour just 10 km from this embattled city, however few residents give such an offensive much chance for success.

"The best we can hope for is a quick signing of the peace deal - and that NATO arrives soon," said Ms. Petrovska.


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