Caught on camera: the creation of two martyrs for the Albanian cause

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The Independent Online

Two Albanian men armed with grenades were shot dead by Macedonian policemen in front of television cameras in the streets of Tetovo yesterday, further increasing the tension as the Balkan country struggles to avoid all-out ethnic war.

Two Albanian men armed with grenades were shot dead by Macedonian policemen in front of television cameras in the streets of Tetovo yesterday, further increasing the tension as the Balkan country struggles to avoid all-out ethnic war.

A glimmer of hope that the situation might ease had already been snuffed out in the morning, when the crash of tank shells, mortars and rifle-fired grenades ended a government-declared ceasefire. Firing resumed at 10am after the Albanian rebels, who have seized the heights above Tetovo, ignored an ultimatum to withdraw from the mountains.

The National Liberation Army rebels offered their own indefinite ceasefire to allow talks to begin, but this was rejected by Macedonia's President, Boris Trajkovski. The next step, he said was to "neutralise and eliminate" the Albanian rebels.

As if in response, the guerrillas were reported to have captured Gracani, a village north-west of the capital, Skopje. A substantial force of rebels entered overnight and police sealed off the town after one officer was wounded in a shoot-out. The rebels said one of their number was also hit. Later in the evening, the village, which is close to the border with Kosovo, was seen in flames.

But it is the television footage from Tetovo which will show the world how dangerous the situation in Macedonia has become, while helping to create two more martyrs for the Albanian cause.

At noon police stopped a hatchback at a fortified checkpoint in the Cetinska district, next to the town's sports stadium. It was the first day that vehicle checks had been carried out in the centre of Tetovo, whose population is overwhelmingly Albanian, and three television crews filming the increase in security captured what happened next.

In the footage, a frantic struggle breaks out as the passenger, a man of about 50, produces a grenade and pulls out the pin. The man is shot, but still manages to throw the grenade, which fails to explode. The driver, a man of about 60, is shot down before he can arm the grenade in his hand. The first man is hit several more times as he tries to shelter behind the car, and sinks to the ground.

A senior policeman with a pistol rushes up to the driver and drags him away from the grenade, then feels his neck as if trying to detect a pulse. The officer signals to his younger colleagues to stop firing, apparently so that he can approach the passenger, who is still stirring. But a final burst blows the man's brains out. All the time a civilian, possibly an informer, stands by without making any attempt to take cover.

Well into the afternoon the passenger's body lay face-down in the road, clearly visible from the distance at which police kept onlookers.

"Today nothing is impossible," said Shpetim Murtezani, a shopkeeper who, like the rest of the crowd, was Albanian. "Most people are afraid of one another, and some may have a gun or a grenade to protect themselves."

The Macedonian authorities are not alone in fearing that attempts are being made to provoke them into the kind of over-reaction which would swing the Albanian population firmly behind the rebels. On this occasion the presence of television cameras may help to quell claims that the men were shot in cold blood, but the reactions of Albanians in a café near the scene showed the kind of hardening of attitudes which has previously led other parts of the former Yugoslavia into disaster.

"A catastrophe like this motivates us more and more to take a gun and join the fighters in the woods," said 22-year-old Agran Iseni, until recently a law student in Skopje. "Today it was those two men; tomorrow it could be me. If it goes on like this, I would be willing to fight."

Calling the shootings "barbarism", Shaban Shabani, 36, an unemployed heating engineer, was one of many who refused to believe that the police could have acted in self-defence. "Maybe the Macedonians have learnt from the Serbs how to make these things look like a terrorist incident," he said. "I believe Albanians will be patient, and will not retaliate for this, but we are totally unarmed, and we fear that the Macedonian army may move against us."

Mehdi Mehmeti, 42, a primary school counsellor, said: "We are being put in a position where we will reluctantly have to defend ourselves. It is not just this incident - these things are becoming part of daily life." Like many other Albanians in Tetovo, he said the authorities had recently begun arming Macedonian civilians, while their Albanian neighbours had no weapons. "But we have courage," he insisted. "The Macedonians won't find it easy to conquer us."

The constant denunciations of "terrorists" by the government media is contributing to tensions between the two communities. Several Albanians said they would look to their political leaders, some of whom are in the government, for guidance. But Arben Xhaferi, the most senior Albanian politician in the governing coalition, is threatening to quit unless his Macedonian colleagues pay more attention to Albanian demands for civil rights.

While Albanians interviewed yesterday had no hesitation in giving their names, one of the few Macedonian families in the Cetinska district was unwilling to do so. "I am very frightened by incidents like this shooting," said the elderly mother of the family. Behind her, smoke rose from forest fires in the hills set off by sporadic shelling. "This is bad for both communities," said her 35-year-old son, an unemployed cook. "It is outsiders on both sides who are causing the problems."

But while many Albanians believe this year's insurgency is an inevitable response to years of being treated as second-class citizens, most Macedonians believe the rebellion proves that no amount of concessions will satisfy the Albanian minority.