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War Next Door Tugs at Macedonia

Ethnic Albanians say Kosovo guerrillas have already set up shop in the tiny republic.

When night falls on this border village in the Sar Mountains, smugglers trickle in from the woods and load their mules with sugar, flour, and cooking oil.

They come from Kosovo, five miles away in neighboring Serbia, and are greeted with sympathy by the ethnic Albanians here.

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"I assume some of the goods go to civilians and some go to the rebels," says a local schoolteacher, who asked not to be identified. "But we don't ask too many questions. We just get them what they need."

Like much of western Macedonia, Jazice is predominantly ethnic Albanian, and people here are eager to help the independence-seeking Kosovo Liberation Army in its six-month-old armed conflict with the Serbs. There have been reports of KLA arms smuggling, fund-raising, and recruiting in this tiny Balkan country.

But more than anything, Macedonia lies in wait, its eyes locked on Kosovo, where a Serb offensive has generated a mounting refugee crisis - while ethnic tension simmers at home.

A quarter to a third of Macedonia's population is ethnic Albanian. Although tension here hardly rivals that in Kosovo, where ethnic Albanians outnumber Serbs 9 to 1, signs say it may be going a similar direction.

"We have a saying here that what happens to your neighbor will happen to you next," says Mevaip Loku, a taxi driver in Tetovo, 85 percent ethnic Albanian. "We're just waiting for the fight to come to Macedonia."

As in Kosovo, Macedonian Albanians, most of whom are Muslim, have established an underground university so they can study in their native language.

And, also similar to Kosovo, officials from a leading Albanian political party last week said they will boycott October parliamentary elections, in this case in protest of two ethnic Albanian mayors who were jailed last summer for raising Albanian flags over state buildings.

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AT the center of the ethnic Albanians' discontent is a perceived second-class treatment at the hands of the Slav- and Christian Orthodox-dominated government.

Albanians are underrepresented in state institutions and the police force, and they are fighting for special recognition in the Constitution. But unlike those in Kosovo, most Albanians here say they want to remain in Macedonia, not form their own state.

Macedonia peacefully broke from Yugoslavia in 1991 and has led a fragile existence ever since. Some 750 United Nations troops have been deployed on its borders at the request of the Macedonian government.

Bulgaria and Greece have traditional land claims here, and Albania has virtually no rule of law in some areas bordering Macedonia. But the greatest potential threat comes from Kosovo.

"The crisis in Kosovo has caused concern," says Macedonian Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski, who over the weekend met with Albanian Prime Minister Fatos Nano to discuss ways to prevent a spillover.

According to Menduh Thaci, vice president of the Albanian Democratic Party in Macedonia, the KLA guerrillas have already set up a chapter in Macedonia. "We met with them about a month ago," says Mr. Thaci. "They are setting up support structures here - some for financial help and some for arms smuggling. Basically, they are developing channels for the future."

Thaci says Macedonia could replace Albania as the major arms supplier for the KLA if NATO's threat of sealing the border between Albania and Kosovo is realized. For now, however, Western diplomats are most concerned with possible spillover fighting, in which, for example, Serb forces may chase KLA soldiers over the Macedonian border, parts of which have not been demarcated.

By and large, the international community has praised Macedonia for remaining relatively calm.

In Vesala, an almost purely ethnic Albanian border village, walls have been spray painted with "UCK," the Albanian-language initials for the KLA.

Vait Azizi, a local political activist, says the nearby border has been mined by the Serbs, making it impossible for the villagers to get water from wells in that area.

"We support the KLA," he says. "They're fighting for our rights.... If there is a need, all of us will become KLA soldiers."

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