Angry protests at Macedonian concessions to rebel demands

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The Independent Online

Hundreds of angry protesters surrounded Macedonia's parliament on Friday in an attempt to scupper a deal brokered by the West to bring peace to the country.

Chanting "Macedonia's name will never die," they blocked off entrances to try to stop MPs voting on a series of reforms granting the Albanian minority more rights, an integral part of the peace deal.

If the reforms are not passed, a Nato mission to collect arms from the Albanian rebels and prevent civil war could unravel. The rebels occupying large areas of the country have agreed to disarm in return for the reforms.

Most observers expect parliament to vote in favour, after Western leaders leaned heavily on the government this week.

But the protesters managed to have on Friday's debate postponed twice. "Albanians, Macedonia will never give you anything," they cried. An Albanian MP, Zehir Bekteshi, was attacked. He had to run for cover as he was punched in the face and kicked from behind. TV cameramen were pelted with eggs and kicked.

But behind the dramatic television pictures lies real anger, which could threaten the entire peace process. "Nato Intruders" read one of the placards; another said: "Nato and the USA ­ leave Macedonia within 24 hours". Protesters handed out leaflets condemning the West's "efforts to destroy the Macedonian nation".

One woman outside parliament asked on Friday: "How would you feel if you were forced out of your home in England and had nowhere to go?" There were tears in the woman's eyes ­ behind the anger was genuine suffering. She was forced to flee her home in the village of Lesok after it was occupied by the Albanian rebels in fighting.

The majority of the angry crowd outside parliament were refugees who fled from occupied areas of the country. Most say they were forced out at gunpoint. "The Albanians want to take away Macedonian land," said a second woman, "and Nato is helping them." Nato is seen as biased by the majority of ethnic Macedonians, who are convinced it is backing the Albanian rebels. The Macedonian press has accused Nato of arming the guerrillas, and even of flying new supplies of ammunition behind rebel lines during the fighting, and a government spokesman has called Nato "the friend of our enemy".

Vladimir Stefanovski, a practising lawyer who was watching the demonstrations, said: "It is American policy to support a Greater Albania. The Americans want to destabilise the Balkans, because that gives them an excuse to keep Nato here." Macedonians are furious with the peace deal, Mr Stefanovski said, because: "We feel we are being forced to negotiate at the point of a gun. I feel like my country is being invaded."

Albanians have lived in this area for centuries. But Mr Stefanovksi said: "When I opened my office in Skopje twenty-five years ago, there were only a few Albanians in that part of town. Now they are 95 per cent in that area. These Albanians all have 10 children each."

Demographic change, as the Albanian population rises, is unnerving many Macedonians. "People compare here to Northern Ireland, but the Irish and the British share the same culture. The Albanians are Muslims, they are completely different from us," Mr Stefanovski said.

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