Macedonian Slav rioters target ethnic Albanians
Macedonian Slav rioters target ethnic Albanians Posted June 7, 2001
Thursday June 7, 9:46 AM
Macedonian Slav rioters target ethnic Albanians
By Sean Maguire
SKOPJE (Reuters) - Crowds of Macedonia Slavs rioted in the southern city of Bitola on Wednesday, torching ethnic Albanian property in retaliation for a deadly rebel attack that rocked the fragile Balkan state.
Five soldiers, three of them from Bitola, died in the late Tuesday attack on mountain outposts, the deadliest assault by ethnic Albanian guerrillas in almost six weeks.
Shocked Macedonian politicians said they were ready to declare a state of war to give themselves the powers to quell the insurrection, which began in February.
Macedonia's Western allies urged the government to show restraint, warning that a declaration of war risked aggravating the insurgency, which has raised fear of a full-scale civil war.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the government in Skopje should press on with inter-ethnic dialogue and maintain a "measured response" to the violence.
"We don't see that a declaration of a state of war would serve to advance this kind of political reconciliation, political solution.
"We reiterate the importance of the measured response that the government has taken, showing maximum concern for the safety of civilians and pressing forth with this dialogue," he said.
Bitola suffered reprisals after the death of eight soldiers in April. On Wednesday night crowds swept through the town burning at least 25 shops and the home of Macedonia's deputy minister of health, an ethnic Albanian, eyewitnesses said.
"Its total chaos here. There is smoke everywhere and at least four shops of people I know have been burnt," said Svetlana, a witness reached by telephone.
The town quietened down later but is likely to remain tense with the funerals of some of the soldiers scheduled for Thursday.
The soldiers died during fierce fighting in the hills above Tetovo in northwestern Macedonia, the country's main ethnic Albanian town.
Boucher in Washington called the attack on the soldiers "a reprehensible act of violence".
Macedonia's government spokesman Antonio Milosovski said: "A strong military response is the only way to achieve peace," said government spokesman Antonio Milosovski. "All we lack is a strong political decision for military action."
Macedonian politicians suggested a declaration of war in early May to end the insurgency which began in February but were persuaded by the Western powers that it would alienate ethnic Albanians and complicate the search for peace.
It was unclear how determined they were this time to seek the two-thirds majority in parliament needed for such a move. Ethnic Albanians say they face discrimination by majority Slavs. The government calls them terrorists trying to wreck the nation.
In a further sign of unrest, a gunman in a car fired shots towards the office of Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski.
The president was in his office, housed in the Macedonian parliament building in central Skopje, when the shots came. No one was hurt and there was no explanation for the shooting.
Skopje's allies urged restraint after the killings of the five soldiers. European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana strongly condemned the killings but urged Skopje to make only a "measured" military response.
"PLAY INTO HANDS OF EXTREMISTS"
"A declaration of the state of war would only be playing into the hands of the extremists and would not help in resolving the current crisis," he said in a statement.
A spokeswoman for Solana said he would visit the capital, Skopje, on Friday as part of an EU drive to end the crisis.
In Brussels, a senior NATO diplomat said the Western defence alliance backed Macedonia's right to take "proportionate" action, but stressed: "There is no military solution."
Macedonian Defence Minister Vlado Buckovski, who is from a different party than the premier, said he opposed a state of war. "We must remain calm because the struggle against terrorism will be a long one," he told the MIA state news agency.
Trajkovski agreed to make a speech to parliament on Friday after deputies called for an urgent debate on the crisis.
The killings of the five soldiers came after rebels launched concerted attacks late on Tuesday with heavy machineguns and mortars against three military positions near the village of Gajre, 40 km (25 miles) west of Skopje.
Two soldiers died when they were ambushed making a food delivery and three more died in the same place in a second ambush as they escorted medics to help the wounded.
Western diplomatic sources said the rebels had been trying for some time to open a second front near Tetovo to widen the conflict beyond the string of villages northeast of Skopje which they have been occupying for the last month.
Local officials accused rebels of cutting off water supplies to Kumanovo, a town of 100,000 northeast of Skopje, by blocking water flowing from a reservoir. Kumanovo residents were forced to line up at a natural spring to fill bottles.
HEAVY TETEVO FIGHTING IN MARCH
The Tetovo area last saw heavy fighting in March, when the Macedonian army beat back rebels from the outskirts of the town.
Apart from the three dead soldiers from Bitola, a fourth was another Slav and the fifth was a member of the ethnic Albanian minority, which makes up almost a third of the population and which is also subject to military call-up.
The West has been pushing the Slav majority to undercut support for the rebels by improving the rights of Albanians, who say they suffer state-backed discrimination in education, employment and language rights.
The cross-party coalition formed in May to work on reforms has made little progress amid political bickering and tension.