Fresh fighting in Macedonia, day after Americans and other troops evacuate Albanians
SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) – Fresh fighting broke out in Macedonia on Tuesday, aftershocks from rioting the day before that was touched off after American troops helped NATO evacuate armed ethnic Albanian rebels from a besieged town.
New clashes were reported near the village of Nikustak, about six miles northeast of Aracinovo, a suburb of the capital, Skopje, at the center of the conflict the day before.
American troops provided Humvees, trucks, buses and ambulances on Monday to support a NATO effort to move rebels out of Aracinovo and end fighting there.
Army spokesman Blagoja Markovski said government forces were attacked with mortar, sniper and automatic fire near Nikustak.
Also Tuesday, police in Tetovo, Macedonia’s second-largest city, said on condition they not be named that rebels attacked police positions on the outskirts of the city and that government forces returned fire. The rebels also attacked a police position near the city stadium, a military spokesman said. There were no reports of injury.
The fighting came despite international efforts to stop a full-scale war between ethnic Albanians and majority Slavs.
While the evacuation was the first U.S. involvement in the Macedonian conflict, American troops have been stationed in Macedonia since former President Clinton sent them as part of a U.N. peacekeeping operation in 1993.
U.S. spokesman Maj. Barry Johnson would not specify how many Americans participated in the evacuation Monday. He said the troops provided 16 Humvees, nine buses, three ambulances and three cargo trucks.
Ethnic Albanian militants withdrew from Aracinovo under the NATO plan. Alliance peacekeepers used NATO trucks to drive rebel weapons past Macedonian government lines. Buses ferried the rebels to safety.
The withdrawal outraged thousands of Macedonian Slavs, who gathered outside parliament Monday evening demanding harsher action against the rebels. Some broke into the legislature and shattered windows.
Shots were fired, but there were no reports of injuries. Police reservists were called in and the riot broke up after they were ordered to pull back. The attack shattered a cease-fire meant to create conditions for peace talks to end Macedonia’s most severe crisis ever.
While journalists did not hear any explicit anti-American slogans, demonstrators did burn photographs of Javier Solana, the European Union’s top foreign policy official, and Anna Lindh, foreign minister of Sweden, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU.
With tensions still on high, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw postponed a visit to Skopje. He was expected to hold talks with political leaders from both sides who are increasingly estranged after the peace talks collapsed in disarray. Such dialogue is likely to become harder to arrange, with both ethnic Albanian and Macedonian Slav leaders facing more pressure from their constituencies.
Western intervention of all kinds becoming increasingly unpopular among Macedonian Slav hard-liners. Straw said it would have been inappropriate to go ahead with his planned visit while Macedonian ministers were preoccupied with trying to calm the situation on the ground.
The European Union’s new envoy for Macedonia, meanwhile, consulted with EU ministers Tuesday before beginning his mission to Skopje. EU officials said former French Defense Minister Francois Leotard would leave ”very soon” for Macedonia after the talks.
The violence is likely to place more pressure on President Boris Trajkovski, who has been trying to revive peace talks. He scheduled a televised nationwide address for later Tuesday.
The lack of progress has dismayed EU 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, EU foreign ministers told Macedonian Foreign Minister Ilinka Mitreva on Monday during talks in Luxembourg not to count on new financial aid unless the government and ethnic Albanian opponents settle their differences.
Trajkovski 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.
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