Macedonian forces, ethnic Albanian militants exchange fire in tense northwest

Saturday, November 17th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) _ Ethnic Albanian militants and Macedonian security forces clashed in the tense northwestern region early Saturday, a day after a shadowy rebel group threatened a new insurgency.

Macedonian police claimed that rebels opened fierce machine-gun and grenade-launcher fire on a checkpoint near the village of Preljubiste, just outside the tense area where three policemen were slain earlier this week.

A high-ranking Interior Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Associated Press that police forces returned fire. There were no casualties in the firefight, which lasted less than an hour.

Alban Berisha, a spokesman for the new militant group calling itself the Albanian National Army, told the AP on Friday that his organization had ``started the war for the liberation of all Albanian territories in former Yugoslavia,'' an allusion to Macedonia's former status as a Yugoslav republic.

Although Defense Ministry spokesman Marjan Gjurovski called the group a danger to national security, the intensity of the threat remained difficult to gauge amid reports that the insurgents numbered no more than a few dozen.

A former commander of the National Liberation Army, the now-disbanded rebel force that threatened to plunge Macedonia into civil war earlier this year, suggested the new group should not be taken seriously.

``It's not worth commenting on them. They are not a real structure,'' the commander said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The NLA began fighting in February for greater rights for Macedonia's ethnic Albanian minority but agreed to end its struggle in August when a peace deal expanding their rights was reached.

In an earlier statement, the Albanian National Army declared ``all predominantly (ethnic) Albanian areas restricted for Macedonian forces,'' adding that ``all such forces will be attacked without warning if they try to enter.''

Acknowledging that his group had only about 50 fighters, Berisha nonetheless said they were well-trained and equipped and were ``more than enough to wage a guerrilla war in Macedonia.''

On Saturday, the situation was quiet but tense near Tetovo, Macedonia's second-largest city. After the shooting overnight, Macedonian police remained in their trenches and armored personnel carriers, and NATO forces patrolled the areas.

In a legislative breakthrough early Friday, parliament amended the constitution to grant more rights to ethnic Albanians after months of stalling by hardline Macedonian legislators opposed to major concessions to the restive minority.

Key amendments grant the restive ethnic Albanian minority a greater role in police, parliament and education. Other constitutional changes expand the official use of the Albanian language and set a minimum of minority votes needed to pass laws in parliament.