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'Sunday Times (London)'
Sunday 10 June 2001
"Macedonia on brink of war"
Tom Walker Diplomatic Correspondent
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WESTERN intelligence officers say ethnic Albanian rebels are massing for an imminent civil war in Macedonia.

Military intelligence reports describe forces of about 1,000 men in the north of the fractious republic, commanded by a former French legionnaire who uses the nom de guerre of Hoxha. In the west another 300 freshly trained recruits came across the border from neighbouring Kosovo last week, boosting numbers there to 800 armed and uniformed fighters. Nato officials keeping an anxious eye on the on-off fighting said the rebels of the so-called National Liberation Army (NLA) were better equipped and more disciplined than their forebears in the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) which fought Slobodan Milosevic's forces in the southern Serbian province.

The rebels have obtained modern American-made Stinger shoulder-launched missiles, along with more rudimentary Russian-made Sam-7 missiles. Embarrassingly for the alliance, they are making use of maps issued by Nato for the Kosovo Protection Corps (KPC) which it supervises across the border.

Hundreds of KPC reservists were called up by their Albanian commander, Agim Ceku, in March. They subsequently disappeared to former KLA training camps in Albania and are now re-emerging in Macedonia.

"There's plenty of money around and they've got good weapons," a Nato planner said. "But we're hoping they've got the sense not to start shooting down Macedonian helicopters. If they do there'll be terrible retribution."

Macedonia's coalition government came close to declaring war after five Macedonian soldiers died in an ambush last Tuesday, but President Boris Trajkovski has heeded European Union calls for calm.

Although the rebels have officially called a ceasefire, the Macedonians have continued to pound their positions, hoping to keep the fighting away from the valley floors around Skopje, the capital. Nato is investigating reports that the Macedonian government has used Su-25 fighter-bombers hired from the Yugoslav army in its bombardment of Albanian positions.

Intelligence agents have pinpointed 16 illegal border crossings from Kosovo used by the NLA, whose rebels have infiltrated as far as Aracinovo, just six miles from Skopje. A Macedonian police checkpoint yesterday prevented all but local traffic entering the ethnic Albanian part of the town, where a group of at least 10 heavily armed guerrillas was in control.

Last week the NLA murdered an Albanian accused of working with Macedonian police, a tactic used to intimidate "collaborators" in the Kosovo war.

(c) 2001 Sunday Times Reposted For Fair Use Only

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