Soldiers killed as violence erupts in Macedonia

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The Independent Online

At least two soldiers were reported to have been killed on the border between Kosovo and Macedonia yesterday as heavy fighting broke out around a Macedonian village that has been occupied by Albanian rebels. There are fears that the violence could escalate into a new Balkan crisis.

At least two soldiers were reported to have been killed on the border between Kosovo and Macedonia yesterday as heavy fighting broke out around a Macedonian village that has been occupied by Albanian rebels. There are fears that the violence could escalate into a new Balkan crisis.

Until now Macedonia has been the quiet man of the former Yugoslavia, the only republic to split from Belgrade without a war. But yesterday witnesses spoke of the thud of heavy artillery echoing across the border with Kosovo, and there were reports that shells had fallen on Kosovan territory.

The fighting centred on the village of Tanusevic, just 20 miles north of Skopje, the Macedonian capital.

Helicopters belonging to the Nato-led international force in Kosovo (K-For) were hovering over the scene, as Western ambassadors held urgent meetings with the Macedonian President, Boris Trajkovski. The K-For commander, Lieutenant-General Carlo Cabigiosu, and the United Nations chief in Kosovo, Hans Haekkerup, were on their way to Skopje.

There were conflicting casualty reports but it appears one Macedonian soldier was killed by a sniper, setting off heavy exchanges of fire. Another died after his jeep ran over a land mine near Tanusevci."It's a real war," Hamdi Hasani, mayor of the Kosovo border village of Debele, was reported as saying. He demanded action fromK-For, warning that otherwise the villagers would "defend themselves", presumably against the Macedonian army.

Refugees, most of them women and children, have poured into Kosovo from Tanusevci in recent weeks. It has been occupied by Albanian guerrillas who claim they are members of Macedonia's 500,000-strong Albanian minority, and call themselves the National Liberation Army. Macedonian officials say the rebels crossed into their territory from Kosovo.

Albanians make up 30 per cent of Macedonia's population and the Skopje government has been warning the West for a long time that it faces potentially explosive Albanian desires for autonomy, or union with Kosovo - warnings that have been paid little heed.

A different group of Albanian rebels has occupied a narrow strip of southern Serbia around the Presevo valley, where there is a large Albanian population, calling for self-rule.

Serbian officials claim there is a co-ordinated Albanian campaign for independence in Kosovo and neighbouring areas and that it includes the occupation of Tanusevic and the Presevo valley.

Western diplomats in Pristina say they have found no concrete evidence of a co-ordinated campaign.

The Macedonian army could easily crush the rebels in Tanusevci. There are reportedly only about a hundred guerrillas occupying it. But the West has been urging the Macedonian authorities to be restrained, just as it has reined in the Serbs in the Presevo valley.

That tactic may have paid off - the Serbian government is predicting a political settlement in the Presevo area soon. But just as tensions ease in southern Serbia, they are building dangerously in Macedonia.

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