ETHNIC Albanian police official: `danger' growing from Macedonian gangs

Saturday, September 8th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

TETOVO, Macedonia (AP) _ The police chief in Macedonia's main ethnic Albanian city predicted new clashes Saturday unless authorities can rein in Macedonian paramilitary gangs that may have been joined by militias from neighboring Serbia.

Saip Bilali's report of a Serb presence has not been independently confirmed. But if true, it would add another worrisome element threatening the fragile calm as Macedonia marked the 10th anniversary of its independence from Yugoslavia.

``The danger is permanent,'' said Bilali, who is ethnic Albanian.

He said there was ``verified information'' that paramilitary militiamen from Serbia have been seen near the western Macedonian town of Gostivar, but he did not elaborate.

In the capital, Skopje, President Boris Trajkovski urged political leaders to unite behind a peace plan designed to end six months of ethnic conflict.

``Macedonia's political leadership must show courage and explain to the people that there is no reason to fear the agreement,'' Trajkovski said on state radio Saturday.

The peace process in Macedonia is edging through a potentially hazardous phase with NATO collecting more weapons from ethnic Albanian rebels, known as the National Liberation Army, in return for lawmakers' promises to grant more minority rights.

But Western officials fear security problems could destabilize the fragile process.

A Macedonian paramilitary group known as the Lions appears to be operating in the Tetovo area, said Bilali. It has been blamed for harassing ethnic Albanian villagers and even ethnic Albanian police officers, he added.

There has been no clear information on the size and structure of the paramilitary group, although its presence has been confirmed by NATO and other Western officials.

Bilali suggested such gangs may have links to Macedonian police units and supporters of the leading VMRO party of Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski. Top government officials have denied any connection.

Earlier this week, the deputy head of the Tetovo traffic police, an ethnic Albanian, was attacked by the Lions in the ethnic Albanian village of Palatica east of Tetovo.

A NATO liaison team _ in the area by chance _ intervened to defuse a potential clash after armed ethnic Albanians responded to the shooting, the alliance said.

``We were hoping the problem would start to be resolved through political methods,'' Bilali said. ``But it's a pity that in Tetovo ... there will be further developments regarding the mistreatment of citizens.''

The peace accord calls for the National Liberation Army to hand over its weapons to NATO. But the NATO mission is to last only 30 days, ending Sept. 26. The European Union has begun deliberations on sending its own force to protect civilian observers who would stay to monitor the situation.

Trajkovski insisted Macedonia needs no international force once NATO leaves.

``If NATO troops stayed on, this would only give us a sense of false security ... and create another Bosnia or Kosovo in the Balkans,'' he said on state radio.