Macedonia accuses Western officials of bias as rebels advance in Tetovo
SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) – Ethnic Albanian rebels attacked an army barracks and surrounded four villages on Tuesday, while mobs in the capital accused NATO of siding with the guerrillas and attacked the U.S., British and German embassies.
Protesters threw stones at the U.S. Embassy, breaking windows as riot police looked on but failed to intervene.
A mob of several hundred people smashed the main doors of the German and British embassies and the front of a McDonald’s restaurant. Vandals burned several cars belonging to the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe before the violent protests subsided early Wednesday.
Government spokesman Antonio Milososki on Tuesday called NATO ”a big friend of our enemies.”
The protests came as rebels clashed with government forces in Tetovo on Tuesday. The Defense Ministry said that the rebels were advancing and had surrounded four nearby villages.
Lightly armed Macedonian police abandoned several checkpoints and were replaced by rebels in Tetovo, Macedonia’s second largest city, Macedonian media reported.
A rebel commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said police were handing out arms to people at one checkpoint. Rebels attacked Tetovo’s army barracks, but further details were not available.
Amid the growing hostilities, Macedonian authorities closed the border with Kosovo and hundreds of residents fled Tetovo and surrounding villages, several of them now in rebel hands.
Army sources said fighting was still going on around 9 p.m. in and around Tetovo. ”Terrorists are using heavy machine guns and mortars,” one source said, adding that rebel activity was particularly intense in the Drenovec and Proj suburbs.
An hour later, fighting stopped, and a Macedonian TV station reported that Peter Feith, NATO’s special envoy to Macedonia, had won a fresh cease-fire pledge from Ali Ahmeti, the rebels’ political leader.
The clashes followed some of the worst fighting in Macedonia in months on Monday. Western diplomats on Tuesday were trying to salvage peace talks designed to prevent a full-scale civil war in this troubled Balkan nation.
The militants launched their insurgency in February, saying they were fighting for greater rights for ethnic Albanians, who account for up to a third of Macedonia’s 2 million people. The government contends they are trying to carve up the country.
But the talks have faltered and Monday’s attack was the largest violation yet of a cease-fire.
Meanwhile, Macedonian authorities accused NATO and Western officials of siding with the rebels, dimming prospects for the peace talks.
Up to 3,000 angry Macedonians protested in front of parliament in Skopje, the capital, under a banner that read, ”Who is protecting the terrorists? – NATO.”
Milososki, the government spokesman, accused NATO and Western officials of failing to respond to rebels’ ”cleansing” of Macedonian villages around Tetovo and being biased in the negotiations.
”All our fears have proven true that the international representatives are in close coordination with the KLA,” a reference to the officially defunct Kosovo Liberation Army. ”This is open, public cooperation between international mediators and the rebels,” Milososki told The Associated Press.
Before Milososki spoke, NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson rejected similar Macedonian allegations over the weekend that NATO-led forces in Kosovo had been resupplying ethnic Albanian armed groups.
U.S. envoy James Pardew and his EU counterpart, Francois Leotard, worked to revive peace talks that collapsed late last week after majority Macedonians refused to accept a provision that would make Albanian an official language.
In a joint statement, Leotard and Pardew said they ”are shocked by allegations that they support the NLA (rebel army) or that they lay responsibility for the fighting in Tetotvo on the Macedonian security forces.”
During a brief visit to Camp Bondsteel, the U.S. military base in neighboring Kosovo, President Bush issued a statement Tuesday backing efforts by Western diplomats to broker a peace settlement, and called on rebels and the Macedonian government to respect the cease-fire.
”Those here in Kosovo who support the insurgency in Macedonia are hurting the interests of ethnic Albanians throughout the region,” Bush said. ”The people of Kosovo should focus on Kosovo.”
Earlier Tuesday, the Defense Ministry in a statement admitted that the rebels were advancing in the recent offensive and said that four Tetovo area villages had been surrounded by ”terrorist forces.”
It said that late Monday and early Tuesday the rebels had set up a checkpoint on the Tetovo-Gostivar road, opening fire on vehicles that refused to stop.
A policeman died Tuesday from injuries he suffered during clashes in the village of Lesok on Monday, adding to an unconfirmed list of several fatalities over the last two days, the ministry said.
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