Ethnic Albanian rebels pull out of strategic suburb, Slavs riot in Skopje
SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) – A NATO-brokered peace deal sparked riots in Skopje Monday by thousands of Slavs, some chanting ”Gas chambers for the Albanians,” as they demanded the Ethnic Albanian rebels be destroyed.
The rebels pulled out of a strategically important suburb near the capital earlier Monday under the NATO deal designed to revive peace talks here.
Buses headed out of Aracinovo carrying ethnic Albanian rebels hunkered down for days, said U.S. Maj. Barry Johnson, a spokesman for the NATO-led peacekeepers. The alliance then sent at least four trucks to the village to take out the weapons belonging to the rebels.
The rebel withdrawal came just days after government forces began an offensive against ethnic Albanian militants holed up in the suburb not far from the country’s airport.
But de-escalation of Macedonia’s crisis was short lived. New fighting, near Tetovo, cast a pall at the success of the negotiated end to the Aracinovo standoff, and tensions rose as thousands of angry Slavic Macedonians demanded a more hard-line approach against the rebels.
Police officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said rebels attacked police positions on the outskirts of the city and government forces returned fire, with fighting then moving away from Tetovo and near the village of Gajre in the hills overlooking the city.
In Skopje, about 5,000 Macedonian Slavs – who outnumber ethnic Albanians by more than three to one – gathered in front of parliament, nosily demanding harsher action against the rebels. Shots were fired, but there were no reports of injuries.
Some of the protesters chanted ”Gas chambers for the Albanians.” Others pounded two police cars, while dozens broke into the parliament building, made their way to a balcony and displayed the former Macedonian flag, replaced more than half a century ago by the communists when the country was still part of Yugoslavia.
In a smaller protest, a crowd near Kumanovo blocked a road, preventing empty buses from moving shortly after they were used to take some of the rebels from Aracinovo to Umin Dol, just outside Kumanovo. U.S. soldiers were with that convoy, along with Macedonian police who tried to negotiate their way through the crowd.
Johnson said more than 300 people, most of them rebels, were taken out of Aracinovo.
Talks had broken down last week after President Boris Trajkovski declared that ethnic Albanian negotiators were unwilling to budge on key sticking points in the negotiations.
The lack of progress has dismayed European Union leaders, who have been trying for months to persuade the Macedonian Slav leadership and ethnic Albanian political leaders to compromise and avert civil war.
To back up that point, the EU told the country’s foreign minister on Monday not to count on new financial aid unless the government and ethnic Albanian opponents settle their differences.
The EU foreign ministers held 45 minutes of talks with their Macedonian counterpart, Ilinka Mitreva, who pleaded for help.
EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten reiterated that was only possible if progress is made in national reconciliation talks.
”We would like to support confidence-building measures, but it is difficult to build people’s confidence when money, which is very clearly in short supply, is being spent on bombs and rockets,” Patten said.
An American, meanwhile, was wounded by gunfire.
The man’s status was unclear – NATO officials suggested he might have been part of a monitoring mission or a diplomat. The man, overheard identifying himself as John Green, was emerging from the woods with two other Americans near the rebel-controlled village of Grusinovo when Macedonian troops fired warning shots.
Two of the shots wounded Green, one in the arm and the other in the leg, but apparently not seriously. The Americans, in civilian clothes, all raised their arms in the air. Realizing the mistake, the Macedonians called for an ambulance.
Green hobbled into the vehicle after shaking hands with Macedonian officers. He waved his U.S. passport to reporters as he was driven away.
In Washington, meanwhile, the Pentagon said a U.S. army sergeant was wounded in the hand by gunfire on a road northeast of Skopje. Aracinovo is southwest of Skopje, but NATO officials could not rule out that the Pentagon report also referred to the man identifying himself as Green.
Rebel leaders had demanded American participation in the deal to pull out of Aracinovo. Some 300 rebels are covered under the agreement, Johnson said.
NATO-led peacekeepers are in Macedonia to provide logistical support to forces in Kosovo. It was not immediately clear which NATO countries were taking part in the operation.
Trajkovski, meanwhile, has appealed to all political leaders to return to the bargaining table to reconsider his peace plan. The plan calls for amnesty for most rebels who disarm voluntarily and greater inclusion of ethnic Albanians in state bodies and institutions. Talks on the plan resumed Monday.
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