NEWS

Fresh peril in FYROM

VAKSINCE – The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) was facing a new risk of ethnic conflict yesterday after a radical ethnic Albanian militia issued a list of demands, including the withdrawal of elite police from a northern region. The Albanian National Army (ANA), which has seized two northern villages, presented its five demands to ethnic Albanian parliamentarians during three hours of talks late on Tuesday, officials said. The list included the release of «political prisoners» and an amnesty for guerrilla fighters, according to Hisni Shaciri, one of the deputies who met the rebels. The ANA earlier gave Slav-Macedonian forces until Tuesday afternoon to pull out of the Albanian-dominated region around the villages of Vaksince and Lojane, some 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of Skopje. But the militia dropped the ultimatum after meeting the parliamentarians, presenting instead a list of five demands with no deadline for compliance. ANA fighters armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, pistols and grenades were seen on the streets of Vaksince yesterday, while regular police kept a low profile on the edge of town. Albanian flags fluttered in the town center, and the roads leading south to the capital were deserted in scenes reminiscent of the seven-month conflict in 2001 when ethnic Albanian guerrillas rebelled against the government. Around 1,000 villagers, mainly women and children from the Albanian minority, are believed to have fled the area in recent days, fearing a police crackdown. FYROM Interior Ministry spokeswoman Mirjana Kontevska confirmed that Vaksince and Lojane were «under the control of armed persons» and promised the government would «take action.» She said special police units had pulled back from checkpoints outside town and were being «relocated to different strategic positions with opportunities for better operative and tactical activities.» The police operations were «entering a different phase,» she said, promising however that they would not «threaten or damage the security of the local citizens in any way.» Foreign missions in Skopje, including the US Embassy and the European Union, rallied behind the FYROM government, describing the ANA as criminal elements. «We should deal with these people as they really are – criminals,» Alexis Brouhns, the EU representative in FYROM, told AFP. The standoff comes amid a police hunt for an ANA member, Avdil Jakupi, who allegedly kidnapped two police officers last week to trade them for two captured Albanians. The officers were later freed after a police action. Many local villagers said the government was overreacting. «There are no criminals here, but even if there are, the police cannot keep surrounding a whole village in order to arrest one man,» said Pajazit Ademi, a 62-year-old ethnic Albanian farmer.