||Last Updated: Sep 16, 2007 - 9:35:22 AM
Several incidents involving ethnic Albanians in Macedonia and the country's security forces are threatening the renewal of conflict, in a situation many are linking to the recent developments regarding the future status of the Serbian province of Kosovo.
Six years after an internationally supervised peace agreement prevented further clashes in 2001 - clashes that were leading quickly to civil war - and only two years after Macedonia gained EU candidate status in 2005, renewed violence portends dangerous regression.
The incidents, all on the border with Kosovo, harkened back to those in 2001, when ethnic Albanian paramilitary groups, under the umbrella of the National Liberation Army (NLA), began forcefully taking control of villages bordering Kosovo, displacing non-Albanian civilians and clashing with Macedonian security forces.
The first took place early last month, when alleged ethnic Albanians attacked a police station in Gosince, near the border with Kosovo. This incident was followed by a similar one on 31 August, in which ethnic Albanians clashed with security forces near the mountain village of Tanusevci, also bordering restive Kosovo.
Then, on 10 September, an ethnic Albanian Macedonian police commander was shot dead and two other police officers were injured in a gunfight in nearby village of Vaksince. One gunman was also killed and two others injured.
Local Albanian paramilitary commanders had warned Macedonian security forces that they would not be welcomed in Tanusevci, saying that the village was under the control of the inhabitants themselves. Clashes erupted when police chose not to heed the warning and attempted to enter the village.
Macedonian media reported that all civilians fled the village, most likely crossing the border into Kosovo, and that only members of ethnic Albanian paramilitary units were left in the village. There are reportedly no Macedonian borders guards at this Kosovo crossing, and the nearest police patrol is some 20 kilometers away.
These renewed clashes between the ethnic Albanian militants and Macedonia's security forces are being viewed as belated reprisals for the 2001 insurgency, which left some 100 people dead (according to official figures which are disputed by many) and 170,000 displaced.
Clashes between Macedonian security forces and armed groups of the NLA began in January 2001 in the same mountain region in Northwestern Macedonia as the August/September 2007 incidents.
The 2001 clashes saw the ethnic Albanian minority, which comprises around 25 percent of the population, demanding greater educational rights, as well as representation in the government, armed forces and police.
Clashes ended in August 2001 - narrowly averting a civil war - when the government and rebels signed the EU- and NATO-mediated Orhid peace agreement calling for greater recognition of ethnic Albanian rights in exchange for a rebel pledge to hand over weapons to NATO peace forces.
Ethnic Albanian insurgents also agreed to drop any separatist demands and to fully recognize all Macedonian institutions. In return, the Macedonian government pledged to make the Albanian language an official language and to increase the participation of ethnic Albanians in government institutions, the police and the army.
Still, even after the peace accord, ethnic Albanian officials have not been fully satisfied with the changes in their minority rights - a situation that has continued to cause much tension between the ruling conservatives and the largest ethnic Albanian opposition party, the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI).
The Macedonian government has denied that the recent incidents are in any way a reflection of a renewed insurgency and refuse any comparisons to the 2001 conflict. Instead, government officials claim the clashes were related to crime, not minority disputes.
Macedonian Interior Minister Gordana Jankulovska, speaking to parliament, denied politics had anything to do with the clashes and that "they can't be put in the context of politics. This is not a security question."
The government believes that the area where clashes occurred is being used as a hideaway by ethnic Albanian militants indicted for various crimes in Kosovo and during the 2001 conflict in Macedonia.
Macedonian media said that recently seven Kosovo Albanians escaped from one high-security prison in Kosovo and another in Macedonia and then found shelter in Tanusevci. (Allegedly all the escaped inmates were sentenced for atrocities committed in the Kosovo and Macedonian conflicts.) Reports say that police were heading to the village to arrest the suspects when they were attacked by paramilitary unit.
However, other observers, including western diplomats, fear that the recent incidents in could be linked to the process of finalizing Kosovo's status - an issue that has intensified in recent months, with talk now of partition.
Unable to reach a compromise on Kosovo's final status - which ethnic Albanians saying they will settle for nothing short of full independence and the Serbian government unwilling to consider this and offering only broader autonomy - the international community, which is supervising talks launched in 2006, is out of solutions acceptable to both sides.
There have been reports suggesting that the international community might accept a partitioning of the province, but only if the two sides agree. So far, officials from both sides have rejected the idea. However, there are rumors that Serbian and Kosovo Albanian delegations have used recent backdoor diplomacy bids to inform European officials about the option of a partition.
International mediators have a 10 December deadline to report to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on the progress of the talks. After that date, the US and EU will have to decide whether to recognize Kosovo's independence.
Western diplomats are warning that if the final status of Kosovo results in a partition it could set a dangerous separatist precedent for the entire region. Macedonia would be first in the line, and similar moves could be triggered in Bosnia's Serb-dominated Republika Srpska entity, or even among Bosnia's Croats, who have been haggling to carve the country up into a third, Croat, entity.
In addition, in mid-August, a former member of parliament and the leader the Albanian guerrillas, Xhezair Shaqiri (aka Commander Hoxha), announced that the Macedonian village of Tanusevci was preparing a referendum on seceding from Macedonia and becoming a part of Kosovo.
Shaqiri told the Skopje-based Albanian-language daily Fakti that the "Macedonian government is showing absolutely no interest in this part of the country, while Tanusevci and Kosovo are linked geographically and have many family ties."
Soon after, two more nearby villages, Brest and Malino, also stated they would organize referendums for their separation from Macedonia and merger with Kosovo.
As such, international mediators involved in the status negotiation process have emphatically stressed that any partition of Kosovo would only deal with the province's Serb-dominated northern part, which may become a part of Serbia proper. But a momentum for border changes could reverberate throughout the region, beyond the control of the international community.
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