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Albanian rebels trap villagers under attack

Ethnic Albanian guerrillas are preventing some civilians from leaving villages under attack by the Macedonian Army, a senior Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) source said yesterday.

Roughly 20,000 ethnic Albanian villagers live in the area of military operations in northeastern Macedonia. Some do not wish to leave their homes, but others are afraid to move, he said. Rebel positions in and around a cluster of villages centering on Slupcane and Vakcince have been under tank, artillery, and helicopter rocket fire since last Thursday.

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Only a ceasefire, the OSCE source said, can relieve the situation. But yesterday, Macedonian forces resumed their attack on rebel positions.

The Macedonian government was expected to decide today on whether to introduce a state of war, expanding the powers of the presidency and security forces. Macedonia's main ethnic Albanian party vowed to quit the coaltion government if the parliament votes to impose a state of war to counter ethnic Albanian guerrillas.

While opposing such a declaration, NATO Secretary General George Robertson yesterday gave his strongest pledge of support to Macedonia, saying the country was "on the brink of an abyss."

Mr. Robertson called the rebels, who say they are fighting for equal rights for Albanians - who make up about a third of the republic's population of some 2 million - "a bunch of murderous thugs whose objective is to destroy a democratic Macedonia and who are using civilians as human shields" in a cynical bid to provoke "another Balkan bloodbath."

He said NATO and Macedonian military officials would meet to discuss better cooperation with Macedonian forces, but gave no details.

Macedonian authorities have repeatedly called on civilians to leave the area, promising to hold their fire for several hours each morning and offering transport. But only a few hundred villagers have elected to move out.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor