Albanian rebels get world's attention with war - and website

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The Independent Online

The British troops arriving in Macedonia this weekend to prepare a Nato mission to disarm Albanian rebels – and avert a disastrous civil war – will find themselves plunged into a situation that has changed drastically since the crisis first emerged in March.

Nowhere epitomises the changes they will find as much as Tetovo, the country's main Albanian city. Among the fake marble pillars of the Café Kurtishi, the Albanian rebels of the National Liberation Army (NLA) relax alongside civilian families, Kalashnikovs hung over the back of their chairs, children in rebel berets imitating their every move. This is the guerrillas' café of choice.

Outside, young rebels excitedly wheel-spin expensive four-wheel drives, showing off to locals. In March, after a Macedonian army offensive chased the guerrillas out of the hills overlooking Tetovo, the West breathed a sigh of relief, and the Macedonian government proclaimed victory. The crisis appeared to be over. But the rebels are back – and now most of Tetovo is their territory. Macedonian police can travel safely only in armoured personnel carriers.

Officially a ceasefire is holding, but the killing has not stopped, and there is a danger the British troops arriving this weekend may find themselves caught in the middle of it. An 18-year-old rebel was reported to have been killed in fighting near Tetovo overnight, after a Macedonian policeman was shot dead by a sniper on Thursday.

"What we have to convince ourselves is that people are committed to the ceasefire," the British commander of the Nato advance party, Brigadier Barney Spunner-White, said yesterday. Four hundred British soldiers are travelling to Macedonia in small groups over the weekend, as part of an advance mission to determine whether it is safe to deploy a full Nato task force of 3,500 troops – 1,200 provided by Britain.

"If either side fails to cooperate then there is no role for this task force here in Macedonia and to that end the ceasefire must be genuine before the force will deploy," said Brigadier Spunner-White. The task force's role will be to collect weapons voluntarily surrendered by the rebels.

Nato insists it will not forcibly disarm them, or act as a peacekeeping force. The rebels have hailed the arrival of the Nato troops as a triumph. The most spectacular change since March has been the way in which the NLA has succeeded in turning the West's policy on Macedonia on its head. In March, Western leaders roundly condemned the rebels, and praised Macedonia as a model of ethnic tolerance in the Balkans. Ethnic Albanians were stunned when Nato's Secretary-General, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen – a hero to Albanians since his time as Britain's Defence Secretary during the Kosovo war – condemned the NLA as "terrorists" and said the West would not speak with them.

The West is speaking with them now. Peter Feith, the alliance's special envoy, has been up the winding road from Tetovo to visit the rebels' political leader, Ali Ahmeti.

Macedonia's image as a model of ethnic tolerance lies in pieces. Now the West has arm-twisted and cajoled the Macedonian government into signing a peace deal that grants Albanian demands for greater minority rights – the very rights the NLA claims to be fighting for. The Macedonian government dismissed that claim, accusing the rebels of trying to break the country apart and create a Greater Albania.

Whatever the truth about their intentions, the rebels are convinced handing over their weapons to Nato soldiers will complete the transformation of their image from untrustworthy "extremists" to legitimate partners in the peace process.

The NLA is intensely PR-conscious. The rebels even have their own website at www.tetovari.com, to explain their campaign. This is a new generation of e-guerrillas, and all the signs are that their PR is working.

In many ways, the rebels have transformed Western policy by simply hanging around. Western governments backed the Macedonian army to defeat the rebels on the battlefield but it could not. The rebels became a reality the West could not ignore.

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