- The Washington Times - Monday, May 7, 2001

RECICA, Macedonia — Macedonia officials yesterday debated declaring an official "state of war," granting special powers to military and civilian leaders in response to renewed attacks by rebels believed to have crossed into the country from Kosovo.
Meanwhile, artillery fire from government forces pounded hillside villages where Red Cross officials said civilians were being pressured to remain as human shields by ethnic Albanian guerrillas.
Workers with the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) managed to evacuate 13 civilians from the northeastern villages of Slupcane and Vaksince during a break in firing by besieging Macedonian forces yesterday. But hundreds of other civilians were believed to be trapped in basements and shelters there and in other villages in the province of Kumanovo that were occupied last week by Albanian guerrillas of the National Liberation Army.
Officially only two civilians have been killed in the latest onslaught, but independent Macedonian media say at least seven civilians and several guerrillas have been killed and that three Macedonian soldiers were wounded in a mine explosion.
Macedonian television on Saturday claimed that the fighters were parading civilians on tractor-trailers during the shelling to force the army to hold its fire. There was no confirmation of the report, but the fact it was aired was indicative of the growing outrage among Macedonian Slavs as the countrys politicians struggle to avoid the slide into full-scale civil war.
A short time after a deadline for civilians to leave passed at midday yesterday, the Macedonian gunners resumed their deadly barrage of the rebel-held areas using 105 mm guns, mortars and heavy machine guns.
Then Mil-124 Hind helicopter gunships clattered over the surrounding fields of wheat and peppers, firing flares in the air to ward off guerrilla missiles before sending 30 mm rockets streaking into houses and forests.
From the village of Recica, reporters and civilians sheltered under umbrellas in unseasonable rain watched the columns of smoke and flames billow from Vaksince, about two miles away.
Macedonian forces lack sufficient experienced infantry troops to capture the villages without inflicting heavy civilian casualties and taking unacceptably high losses, so the fighting could be protracted for several days, Western diplomats said.
On Saturday a team of grizzled police special security troops carrying AK-47 submachine guns took up crouched firing positions alongside journalists and television camera crews watching the destruction of Vaksince from the main Skopje-to-Belgrade railway line on the outskirts of the village behind Macedonian tanks and artillery.
They regaled reporters with a rousing rendition of a regimental song and peered at guerrilla positions through binoculars and telescopes but showed no intention of engaging the NLA fighters directly.
The shelling yesterday was the heaviest so far.
"ICRC is increasingly worried about the precarious situation of hundreds of civilians who remain in these villages," the organization said in a statement.
"We believe people are staying in the villages for a mixture of reasons," said ICRC spokeswoman Annick Bouvier. "Some want to remain to be near relatives. A form of intimidation is [also] one of the reasons."
On Friday, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe also said the guerrillas, many of whom are former members of the Kosovo Liberation Army, were preventing civilians from leaving.
Macedonian state television accuses the fighters of using the people as "human shields." The practice is in strict contravention of the Geneva Convention.
Macedonian television also claimed Saturday that civilians were being forced to pay bribes to the NLA to be allowed to leave.
However, an Albanian who left Slupcane on Friday, Nexhat Osmani, said Albanians also were fearful of evacuating because they do not trust the Macedonian police.
"My house was hit by shells, but there were no terrorists inside. The police around the villages are not the ones we know — they come from outside. People fear they may be arrested as suspects if they leave."
European Union foreign ministers urged Macedonia yesterday not to declare a state of war in response to the attacks by ethnic Albanian rebels and repeated an offer of future EU membership as a reward for stability.
Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski said on Saturday after meeting President Boris Trajkovski and top security officials that consultations would begin on whether to declare a state of war.
"We have discussed this issue very seriously but first we have to consult other political parties before taking a decision," Mr. Georgievski said.
Mr. Georgievski is also acting defense minister and leader of the main Slavic party in the governing coalition.
Asked when such a decision could be taken, the prime minister said: "There is no deadline, it could be Tuesday or Wednesday."
The declaration of a state of war, which requires the approval of a two-thirds parliamentary majority, gives wider rights to the security forces, allows the government to pass decisions without waiting for parliament to turn them into laws and gives the president wider powers to hire and fire top officials, including ministers.
"We are thinking about this not because the army and the police are not able to withstand the attacks, but to give them more room for maneuver," Mr. Georgievski said.


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