30/03/2001 - Trepça.net

Birth of New Rebel Army

Macedonian Guerrilla Group Forming in Kosovo Poses Threat of Expanded

Conflict in Balkans

By R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 30, 2001; Page A01

VITINA, Yugoslavia -- The half-dozen men who met secretly in this small town in Kosovo province in December 1999 had a rebellion to plot. Guerrillas had helped expel the Yugoslav army from Kosovo just six months earlier; now, the men were refining their plan for a similar insurrection in Macedonia, visible just across the border from here.

All the men at the meeting were ethnic Albanians, like most of Kosovo's residents. But people familiar with the gathering say the key participants were also citizens of Macedonia, a nation with a Slav-dominated government that they viewed as oppressing their ethnic group.

Some, such as Ali Ahmeti, had served time in a notorious Macedonian prison. Others had organized a clandestine logistics and supply network in Macedonia that fueled the Kosovo fighting. Now they talked about how to repeat what they had done inside the Yugoslav province: form a guerrillaarmy.

Yesterday, as the sound of mortar fire echoed across the Kosovo-Macedonian border, the fruits of their secret efforts were clear. For the past month, Macedonian police and soldiers have been battling a new Albanian force calling itself the National Liberation Army of Macedonia, which Western and local analysts say has had as many as 1,500 members.

The clashes pose the possibility of yet another full-scale ethnic war in the Balkans, where the United States and its allies maintain peacekeeping forces and until last month had been hoping that lasting calm had finally set in.

Although Macedonian forces last week were able to push the rebels out of villages near the western city of Tetovo, Western officials say the rebels suffered few casualties and are still able to fight. "They are not defeated," said a NATO official privy to intelligence about the group.

This latest Balkans struggle is born from a basic fact of the region's history and geography: Boundaries of countries rarely coincide with the boundaries of ethnic groups. Unlike Serbian and Croatian efforts in the 1990s to form unified states, the Albanian guerrillas say they want no redrawing of borders. Their professed goal is autonomy and an end to what they call systematic discrimination in such things as jobs and the use of
their own language in Macedonia. The government says that the Albanian minority has full political rights and that the allegations are invalid.

But so far the consequence of the conflict they have started has been to further divide the nation's Slav majority from its ethnic Albanian minority.

More than 30,000 people from both groups have been driven from their homes, and some villages near the front lines have been destroyed by artillery. Moreover, the fighting has changed how officials in Europe and the United States view ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. During the war there, they were seen as victims of repression; now Western officials say they worry that they have become dangerous exporters of extremist violence.

"Many of the [army's] members are ex-political prisoners," said one of the force's organizers, Fazli Veliu, explaining their zeal. "These are people dealing with their motherland issue, with national aspirations."
Movement's Birth

Ahmeti, the political leader of the National Liberation Army, is typical of the small band of Albanian nationalists feeding this fire. He grew up in a village near the southern Macedonia city of Kicevo. The population there is evenly mixed between Slavs and Albanians, people say, but intermarriage is virtually nonexistent, and the presence of a large Macedonian army base has done little to diminish ethnic unrest.

Ahmeti became involved in politics while studying education at the University of Pristina in Kosovo when Kosovo and Macedonia were both part of Communist Yugoslavia. Along with thousands of other students there, he took part in a 1981 street protest against Yugoslav rule that prompted a brutal government crackdown.

Quickly convicted by a government court, he served time in Idrizovo prison, a dumping ground for dissidents who challenged communist ideas of a socially unified nation. Conditions in the cellblocks were horrendous; Ahmeti was held in solitary confinement for six months at the age of 20. After his release in 1982, Ahmeti continued to attract police attention and he fled to Switzerland.

The nationalist movement was then simmering among the Albanian diaspora. Three ethnic Albanian political leaders were assassinated in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1982, allegedly by Yugoslav security agents; one month later, the National Movement of Kosova was created at a secret meeting in Turkey.

The group, generally known by its Albanian initials LPK, initially sought to pressure Yugoslavia into elevating Kosovo from a province to a full Yugoslav republic. But after Slobodan Milosevic became the nation's leader and Yugoslavia's disintegration began, the group demanded the province's outright independence.

This was, the group said in a manifesto published in 1993, a first step toward the unification of all "occupied" territory in Macedonia and the Yugoslav republics of Serbia and Montenegro where ethnic Albanians predominated -- the creation of a Greater Kosovo. It specifically listed armed resistance as one of its methods.

Ahmeti later returned to Yugoslavia and organized demonstrations with other nationalists in Kosovo. According to senior LPK members, in 1993 he and another Albanian activist, Emrush Xhemajli, gained their group's formal blessing at another secret meeting to create the Kosovo Liberation Army.

By 1997, Ahmeti was spending much of his time in Tirana, Albania, helping organize groups of guerrillas who crossed the border into Kosovo to attack police. The organizing efforts were assisted by Ahmeti's uncle, Fazli
Veliu, a former high school teacher from Macedonia who also had fled to Switzerland.

In 1999, NATO intervened in the KLA's war against Yugoslav forces, bombing Yugoslavia for 78 days to force its army to withdraw from the province. Shortly after NATO peacekeeping troops entered Kosovo in June 1999, the KLA agreed to officially disband.

But Veliu, Xhemajli and Ahmeti -- all of whom were born in Macedonia -- refused to fold the LPK or to embrace open politics. They instead continued to meet clandestinely as the LPK's executive council, according to their friends and former colleagues.

In a series of telephone interviews, Veliu confirmed that the key decision to form the National Liberation Army of Macedonia was made by this council. He also said that meetings to discuss the idea were held inside Macedonia in the fall of 1999 and in Vitina, Kosovo, in December of that year.

By February 2000, the organizing activities of Veliu, who was then operating in Germany, had come to the attention of the Macedonian police; they asked authorities in Germany to detain him. After he was taken into custody there, a group called the Association of Political Prisoners in Tetovo produced a petition signed by 10,000 people calling for his release.

The Macedonian justice minister, an ethnic Albanian, subsequently failed to submit the proper extradition papers to German authorities, and so Veliu was released after 45 days. The minister was then dismissed by the Slav-dominated government.
Training for Battle

When the KLA was formed in 1994, its leaders viewed the Albanian parts of Macedonia as a natural place for guerrilla operations, according to several former leaders of the group. On their maps, it was marked Zone 2.

But as the fight with Yugoslav forces escalated, Western diplomatic pressure helped persuade the KLA not to start a war in Macedonia, the former leaders said. Instead, the country served as a key conduit for arms shipments from Albania and Greece to KLA fighters in Kosovo. Arms caches were deposited in or around dozens of remote villages in Macedonia and moved by mule across the Karadak and Sar Mountains into Kosovo.

After the Kosovo war, members of the Macedonian guerrilla army began to draw on these stocks as they trained at a site in southern Macedonia, near Lake Ohrid, according to NATO officials. Some members also trained in Bajram Curri, a village in northern Albania, one NATO official said.

In the latter half of 2000, as the LPK leaders started establishing small guerrilla cells, they dispatched 30 or so men to establish an arms depot in the village near Tanuscevci, a remote site that straddles the Yugoslav-Macedonian border and served as a smuggling point before and after the Kosovo war.

The guerrillas had ready support in the Kosovo town of Vitina, roughly 15 miles away. "There is no Albanian here that wouldn't like Macedonian Albanians to have better rights," said Vitina City Council President Samet Dalipi. "Some helped in one form; somebody else helped in another. I know that there are people going [to Macedonia] from here."

The guerrillas' plan was to train for attacks against Macedonian forces beginning later this year, perhaps in the summer, according to several people close to the group. But in mid-February, that schedule suddenly began to unravel. A Macedonian television reporter was tipped to the presence of fighters in black uniforms in Tanuscevci, and when she went there to investigate, they took her gear and detained her briefly, a move that ensured the story attracted enormous attention in Skopje, the capital.

Macedonian police arrived soon afterward and a firefight ensued. Residents of nearby villages on the Kosovo side of the border began to flee. Then, in early March, U.S. Army soldiers and a U.S. Special Forces unit in Kosovo forced the fighters from the village, shooting and wounding one guerrilla who refused to lay down his weapon.

The confrontation enraged the guerrillas, who were forced to leave their arms cache behind, and prompted a debate within the ranks about how to react. Some leaders wanted to wait until the force was better organized and trained before beginning any additional attack. But those who favored opening up a new front above the city of Tetovo right away in other villages carried the day.

"I contacted Ahmeti and tried to persuade him to give up the fight," said one ethnic Albanian in Kosovo. "He said he could not stop the people, and that Macedonian authorities had been brutal."

Some weapons the guerrillas have used in recent fighting appear to have come from old KLA caches in Kosovo that NATO peacekeepers have not confiscated. Last week, German troops in Kosovo intercepted a mule train ferrying weapons from Kosovo to Macedonia. Others were purchased. "It's not difficult to get weapons in the Balkans," said former KLA commander Ramush Haradinaj. "You just need money."

Touched by the scenes of fighting in the past weeks, some members of the ethnic Albanian diaspora have established an international fund – called the Voice of Freedom -- for donations meant to fuel the war.

Nonetheless, many Albanians say their deep patriotism is misunderstood, and that today they have no political goal besides better treatment for Albanians within existing countries and the right to move freely among them.

The overwhelming majority of ethnic Albanians in Macedonia and Kosovo have no desire to merge politically with backward Albania, many Albanians say. The LPK has only 4,000 declared supporters among Kosovo's 2 million residents, and it won only 1 percent of the vote in municipal elections last year.

Xhemajli and others close to the guerrillas say it is only their methods that separate them from moderate Albanians and that their goals are the same. "We are for a dialogue," Veliu said. The rebels used violence only because "we were faced to the wall. The political process wasn't working."

But Arben Xhaferi, head of the largest Albanian political party in Macedonia, which is part of a ruling coalition and has fought for change, said the current violence is only a "metaphor for stupidity." It has been fueled by psychologically damaged "Rambos in Albanian society" whose solution to their frustrations is to pick up a gun, he said.

                                     © 2001 The Washington Post Company