Fears of anti-Albanian pogrom as police join riots

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The Human Rights Watch (HRW) organisation yesterday accused Macedonian police of taking part in riots it said were clearly aimed at forcing ethnic Albanians to flee the southern city of Bitola.

Around 100 houses were set ablaze and the city mosque was desecrated as an angry mob stormed through the streets of Bitola late on Wednesday night, sparking fears of a new wave of Balkan ethnic cleansing. In the cemetery, the graves of Albanians were opened and tombstones were kicked over. "Death to the Albanians" was spray-painted on the mosque's wall, and the prayer carpets were burned.

The riots came after the deaths of five Macedonian soldiers, including two from Bitola, in fighting with ethnic Albanian rebels in the north of the country. Several Albanians in Bitola told human rights investigators that they were warned to leave the city within a week. Witnesses said the mob was chanting "Albanians out" and "Pure Bitola".

"It's very clear that there was a plan in advance to identify the houses of Albanians to burn," said Peter Bouckaert of HRW, speaking from Bitola by telephone. "It appears that Macedonian extremists are engaged in a concerted plan to drive Albanians out of town."

Even more disturbingly, Mr Bouckaert said several witnesses told him they saw uniformed police actively taking part in the riots, and that there was "no information at all" to suggest the police had done anything to stop the rampage.

More than 40 houses and shops were set ablaze in a previous night of rioting in Bitola after eight Macedonian police and soldiers were killed in April. The police made only one arrest following that earlier round of rioting ­ and that was of an Albanian who tried to protect his house with a gun. There were similar reports yesterday that three Albanians who tried to protect their property had been arrested.

The sight of Albanians fleeing their homes so soon after the Kosovo war risks stirring Albanian passions across the Balkans.

In recent years only a small minority of Albanians have lived in Bitola, and many of them fled after the first round of riots. But across Macedonia as a whole, Albanians make up between a quarter and a third of the total population, and there are fears that the rebellion could cause a full scale civil war. So far, it is only in Bitola, and a handful of isolated cases in the capital, Skopje, that the fighting has spread to civilians attacking civilians.

Otherwise it has been confined to government troops battling the rebels in the north.

Albanians complain that they are treated as second-class citizens in Macedonia. The Macedonian authorities accuse the Albanian guerrillas of the National Liberation Army (NLA) of trying to partition the country. The rebels claim they are fighting for improved rights.

The United States, the European Union and Nato have all condemned the NLA and are heavily backing the Macedonian government, but calling for improved Albanian rights.

But the Skopje government appears to be incapable of forcing the guerrillas out of villages they have been occupying around the north-eastern city of Kumanovo for over a month now, and public anger among the Slavic majority is growing.

In the last few weeks, Albanian civilians, including children, have been killed by government shelling near Kumanovo. Now it appears Albanian civilians are being intimidated into fleeing their homes miles from the fighting. In Tirana, the Albanian government condemned the attacks on the ethnic Albanians in Bitola, and called on Skopje to protect the Albanian minority. "No reasons can justify the wild ethnic hatred," a government statement said.

The Macedonian Prime Minister, Ljubco Georgievski, responded to the latest killings by calling for a state of war to be imposed. He was unlikely to obtain the two-thirds parliamentary majority this requires, but it may be an indication of the pressure for action building up from his Slav constituency.