Macedonians flee as rebels face offensive

TETOVO, Macedonia, AP

Thousands of frightened Macedonians fled the country’s second-largest city Wednesday after the government handed ethnic Albanian rebels an ultimatum to pull back or face the threat of a new army offensive.

Scores of cars and buses crammed with people and their hastily packed belongings left Tetovo and headed for the capital, Skopje. More than 8,000 people fled the area over the past 24 hours, the government said in a statement.

The exodus widened after Macedonia’s defense minister and interior minister issued an ominous statement Wednesday warning that military action was possible if the insurgents didn’t retreat.

Calling the situation “critical,” NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson said he and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana would fly to Macedonia on Thursday for urgent mediation to prevent the troubled Balkan country from descending into full-scale civil war.

“I call on all of those involved to demonstrate leadership by taking the right decision to follow the path to peace and not to war,” he said. “Any efforts to resolve the situation militarily can only result in the wreckage of the country and the inflicting of grave civilian casualties.”

NATO special envoy Peter Feith reportedly was meeting with the rebels, and Western diplomats in Skopje were struggling to revive peace talks. But a frustrated Milina Stavreva, packing up to leave Tetovo, vowed bitterly never to return.

“Enough is enough,” said Stavreva, 60, a lifelong resident. “We can no longer live here.”

Underscoring how tensions have soared in Tetovo, where ethnic Albanians form a local majority even though they’re outnumbered two to-one nationwide, 25-year-old Albanian Ilir Hoxha said simply: “Let them leave. They should never return. Tetovo is Albanian and it will remain Albanian.”

The exodus of majority Macedonians from the city came after fierce fighting there on Sunday and Monday between ethnic Albanian militants and government security forces. The clashes, the worst in months, broke a fragile cease-fire and dimmed hopes that peace talks, which collapsed last week, could be revived.

“It makes no sense to continue the talks as long as the rebels are violating the cease-fire,” government spokesman Antonio Milososki told The Associated Press. “If they don’t return to their previous positions, we will force them to do so.”

But a senior ethnic Albanian party official said it was up to Macedonians to make a step to resume dialogue.

“The dialogue can resume but it’s up to the Macedonians, who should make a move now,” Abdylhadi Vejseli, deputy chairman of the Party for Democratic Prosperity, the second largest ethnic Albanian party told the AP.

“We have done our part with the international community. It’s the Macedonians who didn’t accept the proposal.”

The capital was mostly quiet Wednesday after a night of street violence by mobs of Macedonians who angrily accused Western mediators of siding with the rebels.

Mobs threw stones at the U.S. Embassy, smashed the entrances to the British and German embassies, and burned several cars belonging to the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Britain’s Foreign Office said Wednesday it was advising against all travel to Macedonia, and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer strongly criticized the Macedonian government Wednesday for stirring up anti-Western sentiment.