Skopje ignores NATO, resumes fire

ILINDEN, Macedonia, Reuters

Macedonia resumed its assault on a village held by ethnic Albanian guerrillas on Saturday despite a blunt NATO warning to stop and the arrival of a top Western envoy hoping to revive peace talks.

Ignoring NATO pleas to stop the “madness”, Mi-24 helicopter gunships swooped in on Aracinovo for a second day and tanks slammed shells into a village the Macedonians have vowed to recapture in a risky bid to seize the upper hand.

Reuters reporters beside the nearby Athens Belgrade highway saw troops exchanging machinegun fire inside Aracinovo, just 10 km (six miles) from Skopje, and plumes of smoke rose from its battered rooftops as the artillery bombardment continued.

“The infantry are already in the village,” army spokesman Blagoja Markovski said. “We have already retaken one third of it, but we do not expect to conquer it fully today.”

Western diplomats doubt the army has enough effective troops to pull it off. They suggest the main objective may be a show of strength to put pressure on Albanian parties to drop demands for wholesale constitutional changes as part of a peace accord.

“They want to be seen to be doing something while they reinvent the plan,” one envoy said. “It achieves nothing unless it’s for the Macedonian media.”

A Su-25 warplane roared over downtown Skopje and the area around Aracinovo four times on Saturday morning, as European Union foreign affairs chief Javier Solana arrived on his latest mission to coax both sides of the ethnic divide into a deal.

Markovski said the plane, clearly audible throughout the capital, was “engaged in surveillance” and would not attack.

Western diplomats, anxious to broker a deal before the four-month-old conflict spirals into civil war, met Albanian leaders on Friday night in a bid to salvage peace talks which have effectively stopped, though informal negotiations continue.

Albanian parties, whom diplomats suspect of wanting to draw in NATO to police a partition of the tiny country, are refusing to resume formal dialogue unless the attack is called off. They appear to have taken heart from NATO’s forthright condemnation.

“We are determined to talk,” said Zamir Dika, a top Albanian politician, stressing the West had to get more involved. “We expect a strong reaction by the international community, primarily NATO, to prevent the obvious danger of civil war.”

Macedonian officials, who say the assault sought to force the Albanians’ hand by gaining the initiative on the ground, want Solana to lean on the Albanians to drop demands for concessions which the government and diplomats say go too far.

The guerrillas, who are fighting back in Aracinovo and show no signs of giving up, responded to the Macedonian offensive with an attack on a police checkpoint in the village of Vorce, wounding five members of the security forces, officials said.

Diplomats had expected a major retaliation in other parts of Macedonia’s northern hills seized by rebels since February, or even the shelling from Aracinovo they threatened two weeks ago.

“It is interesting that we have yet to see the implementation of their threats,” one Western envoy said.