- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 28, 2001

SKOPJE, Macedonia Islamic fighters like those trained in Afghanistan by Osama bin Laden number about 6,000 in this country a bit larger than New Jersey. They come from many Arab nations, plus Bosnia, Turkey, Ukraine, and even as far away as Tanzania to open a "second front" against infidels.
These mujahideen are equipped not only with sniper rifles and machine guns, but also have mortars and light planes. Are we talking about Afghanistan or Iraq, where American troops might be sent to demolish another terrorist threat?
No, this is Macedonia, a mountainous, land-locked country in the Balkans with a population of about 2 million people that broke away from the Yugoslav federation 10 years ago and now lives in a condition of semiwar, semipeace bordering Albania, Serbia (mostly its Kosovo region), Bulgaria and Greece.
Initially boycotted by Greece, which feared the name "Macedonia" could imply territorial claims on northern Greece, this country waited several years before admission to the United Nations in 1995. As the Balkan wars spread, the United Nations sent a few hundred U.S. and Scandinavian peacekeepers to Macedonia in 1992 the U.N. Preventive Deployment, or UNPREDEP.
This force was renewed at intervals until 1999, when China, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, cast a veto over Skopje's diplomatic recognition of Taiwan in exchange for several hundred million dollars of aid. This June, Macedonia switched its diplomatic ties from Taipei back to Beijing.
In 1999, the conflict in Kosovo sent 375,000 refugees into northern Macedonia. Early this year, a new conflict broke out here centered on Tetovo and Kumanovo involving some of the Albanian guerrillas who had fought in the Kosovo war. Recently, the ethnic conflict between Macedonians and Albanians has been brought to a shaky halt by a NATO and European Union military presence.
Called Essential Harvest, the NATO force collected thousands of weapons from ethnic Albanian rebels in Macedonia before its mandate expired last month. It has been replaced by a smaller NATO force of 1,000 military policemen in an operation named Amber Fox.
Ethnic Albanians comprise more than 22 percent of Macedonia's population. They are represented in the People's Assembly, the Cabinet (6 ministers), as mayors and heads of local administration. Slavic Macedonians who comprise more than 66 percent of the population, think this is appropriate.
However some radical ethnic Albanians claim Macedonia was historically theirs, and that their Slavic neighbors, now the majority, came to this region long ago as "aliens" from beyond the Carpathian Mountains. In this and other matters, they are supported by Albanians in Albania and Kosovo.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 in New York and Washington, some see a terrorist threat for the United States emerging from the Balkans. Connections between the Albanian Kosovars, Arab mercenaries and mujahideen from Chechnya have been documented by Macedonia.
At the same time, the country lives in a strange atmosphere between "limited peace" and "undeclared war."
When this correspondent sought to visit one of Macedonia's top tourist attractions Lake Ohrid, Europe's oldest and deepest, covering 138 square miles at an elevation of 2,200 feet in the mountains bordering Albania, and in a cradle of Eastern Orthodox Christianity the driver took a road though Veles and Bitola, rather than the short way through Tetovo. He said Albanian separatists of the UCK Ushtria Clirimtare e Kosoves, or Kosovo Liberation Army control that part of Macedonia.
In Skopje, Macedonia's capital of 600,000 inhabitants (totally rebuilt after a 1963 earthquake), the only sign of trouble is a $102 "war zone" surcharge at the airport. The streets are full of carefree people, cafes and bars are open well after midnight, and many residents spend their weekends at Lake Ohrid to relax from the work rhythm of the capital.
But just a 30-minute drive to the north, it is another world. Ethnic Albanian paramilitaries keep infiltrating from Kosovo, and the government says they now control one-sixth of the country's territory. Macedonian police are not allowed to go there, and the government cannot exercise control there. Daily television reports tell of shootings and Slavic Macedonians being driven from their homes by ethnic Albanians.
Albanians say the Macedonians are intruders and that they are just reassereting their rights.
The government rejects this. "Any partition of Macedonia is inadmissible," said Interior Minister Lubcho Boshkovky. "We will not allow Albanians to divide our country and crush our people."
When I spoke to representatives of the Macedonian government, they were unanimous: The problem of Macedonia today is a continuation of the unresolved problem of Kosovo. Being under a NATO protectorate, Kosovo continues to cause enormous humanitarian and refugee strains for all neighboring countries, including Macedonia.
At the same time very few people in Macedonia either on the streets or at the top levels of government are optimistic about a quick and soon solution of that crisis.
"The world should understand, that this is a European problem, and the European countries should play a major peace role here," Defense Minister Vlado Buckovski told this reporter in an interview.
"The United States, with all its power, cannot solve this problem, and NATO should be more active in restricting terrorism. Otherwise everybody, including the U.S. will feel the negative impact of the unresolved crisis around our country. If we don't get help to fight terrorism here in the Balkans, tomorrow you may face these terrorists elsewhere."

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