Macedonia seethes with ethnic tension

European Union governments are expressing increasing concern at ethnic tensions in Macedonia which they say have brought the former Yugoslav republic to "boiling point". The British, French and Greek ambassadors handed Branko Crvenkovski, the Macedonian Prime Minister, an EU statement last Tuesday that urged a peaceful end to a three-week-old confrontation between Slav Macedonian students and members of the country's ethnic Albanian minority.

At the same time the Macedonian government has asked the United Nations to suspend plans to scale down its 1,100-strong peace-keeping force in the country, ostensibly because of the turmoil in neighbouring Albania. The UN force, which contains 500 Americans, has helped preserve Macedonia's precarious stability since 1993, but it was due to be reduced by 300 troops by the end of April.

Both the Macedonian government's request and the EU statement underline the continuing tensions in Macedonia, where most people are Slavic-speakers but ethnic Albanians make up 23 per cent of the 2 million population. The latest disturbances began on 17 February in the capital, Skopje, and quickly spread to Tetovo, an ethnic Albanian stronghold in western Macedonia.

According to Emrie Sadikoska, an ethnic Albanian student representative, Slav Macedonian university and high school students have chanted slogans such as "Gas chambers and death to the Albanians". Ethnic Albanians have responded with chants such as "Macedonians out of Tetovo".

Tetovo is a highly sensitive city because it borders not only Albania but the mainly Albanian-populated Serbian province of Kosovo, itself seething with ethnic rivalries. About 80 per cent of Tetovo's 100,000 people are ethnic Albanians, and their efforts to operate an Albanian- language university have angered the Macedonians. Some Macedonians suspect the ethnic Albanians of harbouring ambitions of secession and unification with Albania and Kosovo. The Albanians of western Macedonia declared themselves autonomous in 1992.

Last autumn about 1,000 ethnic Albanian schoolchildren were struck down by a mysterious illness that caused headaches and breathing problems. Some ethnic Albanians accused Slav Macedonians of poisoning the children, but World Health Organisation experts said the outbreak had psychological causes.

Underlining the West's fears that unrest in Macedonia could spark a wider Balkan conflict, the EU statement said: "A stable and prosperous country is not only in the interest of the population of Macedonia, but also essential for the stability of the region as a whole."

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