- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 26, 2001

SKOPJE, Macedonia Political fallout intensified today following a day of rioting in Macedonia's capital that was touched off after Americans and other NATO troops evacuate armed ethnic Albanian rebels from a besieged town.

Riots came yesterday despite international efforts to stop a full-scale war between ethnic Albanians and majority Slavs. The riots came after NATO-led peacekeepers intervened in the conflict for the first time, part of a deal designed to end fighting in Aracinovo, a suburb on the outskirts of Skopje.

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.

Ethnic Albanian militants withdrew from the suburb 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 last night demanding harsher action against the rebels.

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.

With tensions still on high and fresh riots near the country's second-largest city, Tetovo, 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.

Some protesters yesterday broke into the legislature and shattered windows. Photographs of European Union officials trying to end the crisis were burned in the streets.

Western intervention is becoming increasingly unpopular among Macedonian Slav hard-liners. Mr. 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.

"I intend to go there as soon as the situation becomes calmer," Mr. Straw said.

The European Union's new envoy for Macedonia, meanwhile, consulted with EU ministers today before beginning his mission to Skopje. EU officials said former French Defense Minister Francois Leotard would leave "very soon" for Macedonia after the talks.

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