- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 6, 2001

U.S. reinforcements have been rushed to the tense southern border of Kosovo in a bid to keep an ethnic Albanian insurgency in Macedonia from spreading, officials of the international peacekeeping mission in Kosovo said yesterday.

Military commanders of the NATO-dominated Kosovo peacekeeping mission dispatched rapid-reaction troops from the 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment to the Kosovo side of the border, along with Polish and Ukrainian troops.

"We have increased our military presence along the Kosovo border with [Macedonia] to ensure that Kosovo is not used as a staging area for extremist activities" inside Macedonia, Lt. Gen. Carlo Cabigiosu, military commander of the peacekeeping mission, said yesterday, a day after meeting with Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski.

Reporters in the region also said that a convoy of U.S. Army trucks and at least two Black Hawk helicopters were seen near the Kosovo village of Debelde, not far from the fighting in Macedonia.

But officials of the embattled Macedonian government yesterday criticized NATO's response to date and said they planned an appeal today to the U.N. Security Council for an internationally policed buffer zone to prevent further incursions by ethnic Albanian guerrilla forces.

"They are too scared that some of their soldiers might get killed," Macedonian Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski told reporters in the Macedonian capital of Skopje yesterday after an emergency meeting with top NATO representatives.

Tensions in the region escalated sharply Sunday when three Macedonian soldiers were killed in clashes with a band of about 100 Albanian guerrillas in the remote border town of Tanusevci.

The guerrillas, reportedly with links to extremist Albanian groups operating across the border in Kosovo and southern Serbia, have held the Macedonian town since Feb. 12. Macedonian officials fear the conflict could spread in a small country in which Slavs are the majority but ethnic Albanians make up between a quarter and a third of the population.

Details from the remote region are sketchy. Gunshots were heard again yesterday, but NATO observers said they also saw at least part of the Albanian guerrilla force withdrawing from Tanusevci toward the Kosovo border.

But officials in Skopje also said the fighting had spread to two other villages in the country's mountainous north, about 25 miles from the capital.

Macedonia has sealed its northern border and yesterday announced it was calling up all its army and police reservists to deal with the crisis.

The latest unrest has all taken place on the borders of the sector in Kosovo primarily patrolled by U.S. forces.

The fighting and related skirmishes between Albanians and Serbian security forces in southern Serbia have raised fears in Washington and Western Europe of a new round of instability in the Balkans, fueled by the Albanian nationalists who dominate Kosovo.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday the United States "strongly condemns the acts of violence by extremists who are seeking to undermine the stability of Macedonia, Kosovo and the region." He said he expected the U.N. Security Council to take up Macedonia's request for a buffer zone later this week.

Other countries took an even stronger line.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would back Macedonia's bid in the United Nations for a new buffer zone, and Bulgaria said yesterday it was prepared to dispatch troops to help a fellow Slav nation.

Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, who is attempting to quell an uprising by ethnic Albanians in the Presevo Valley, said the international peacekeeping mission that runs Kosovo is directly responsible for the "spread of terrorism" in the region.

The international force "takes care of its own safety and is concerned only with itself and not with the safety of Serbs, Macedonians and moderate Albanians who are all suffering at extremist hands," Mr. Kostunica said yesterday during a visit to the Bosnian city of Banja Luka.

Even Albanian Prime Minister Ilir Meta said yesterday that the attacks "damage the image of all Albanians in the region."

Ethnic Albanian partisans said the unrest reflects continuing discrimination and violence against ethnic Albanians in Yugoslavia and Macedonia. Ethnic Albanians are a majority in Serbia's Presevo Valley and in the villages like Tanusevci along Macedonia's northern border.

Shirley Cloyes DioGuardi, Balkan affairs adviser for the Albanian American Civic League, said the importance of the Tanusevci incident had been greatly inflated by elements within Macedonia who opposed the multiethnic coalition government.

"We condemn all acts of violence as destabilizing," said Mrs. DioGuardi, who just finished a weeklong trip to Kosovo, Skopje and Serbia's Presevo Valley. "But there's no need to make this into an international incident when you're talking about a very small group doing the fighting.""

Macedonia, a staunch NATO ally during the 1999 air war against Yugoslavia, has long been considered a potential source of instability because of its ethnic mix.

The country's largest ethnic Albanian party is part of the governing coalition. Mr. Trajkovski said in an interview Friday that he had seen no signs yet that mainstream Albanian leaders in Macedonia are supporting the rebels.

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