Ethnic tension reaches new heights in Macedonia

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Hundreds of young Macedonia Slavs marched in Skopje yesterday (17 April) to protest against the killings of five fishermen north of the capital. Speculation about Albanian-led gang-style executions were reinforced by threats from a so-called "Army for the liberation of Albanian lands" to launch new attacks. 

Radio Free Europe reported that the recent violence between Macedonian Slavs and ethnic Albanians has sent tensions soaring to their highest level since civil war was narrowly avoided in 2001 (see background).

This latest ethnic tension started with the discovery on 13 April of five slain Macedonian fishermen beside a lake at the village of Smiljkovci north of Skopje. Four of the victims were in their late teens or early 20s. The fifth was a man in his 40s.

Authorities have not announced a motive for the killings nor named any suspects. But speculation about the gangland-style executions has focused on tensions with ethnic Albanians.

On 16 April, hundreds of angry young Macedonian Slavs marched in Skopje to protest the Smiljkovci killings. They chanted nationalist slogans and blamed ethnic Albanians for the deaths.

Riot police later clashed with the stone-throwing demonstrators and prevented them from marching across a bridge to a mainly Albanian neighbourhood in the capital. The police action won praise from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Meanwhile, fearing ethnic conflict could escalate out of control, Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov has issued calls for restraint and a speedy investigation into the Smiljkovci killings.

Interior Minister Gordana Jankulovska warned that speculation about who was behind the killings risked fuelling ethnic tensions.

Ethnic Albanian political leaders also urged citizens and media to refrain from speculation. Among them is former rebel leader Ali Ahmeti, who is now the president of the largest ethnic Albanian party, the Democratic Union for Integration, which is in coalition with the ruling VMRO-DPMNE of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski.

Mysterious 'army'

But in the meantime, a previously unknown organisation calling itself the Army for the Liberation of Occupied Albanian Lands yesterday threatened to launch attacks in Macedonia, the Serbian website B92 reported.

The group said it would attack what they referred to as "Slavo-Macedonian" army and police unless they retreat from "occupied Albanian lands" within the next two weeks.

A statement to this effect was posted on the Albanian-language website Potalb.

It further said that this "army" also has its "general staff", which met in Kosovska Mitrovica, a divided city in Northern Kosovo with an Albanian and a Serbian community living separate lives.

The group's statement also claims that rights of ethnic Albanians are "violated on a daily basis in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia".

Gruevski is described as being "pro-Serb", and is being accused of "spreading anti-Albanian ideology and instigating assaults on innocent Albanians", while "Albanian villages are blocked by Macedonian Slavs and nobody among corrupt politicians in Ethnic (Greater) Albania is reacting because they are all traitors to their homeland."

The group further threatened "to avenge our brothers", and said this would take the form of "fire against fire, an eye for an eye, an arm for an arm."

Stern warning

On a visit to Skopje yesterday, Czech Prime Minister Petr Ne?as warned that ethnic tension in Macedonia may harm the country´s EU integration efforts, the Czech agency ?TK reported.

?TK also quoted EU Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle, who is Czech, saying that the Commission had no information that the "terrible" murder of the fishermen had any ethnic origin.

Barbara Frye, managing editor of Transitions Online, a website specialised in reporting on Eastern Europe, asked some of its correspondents for reactions to the Macedonian murders.

One of them wrote that some people are speculating that the murders are meant to send a message to the police, who have been arresting members of the ruling VMRO-DPMNE party in eastern Macedonia as part of an operation against organised crime. The "controlled instability" of ethnic tension could be good for those in power, the correspondent wrote.

European Commission's Enlargement spokesperson, Peter Stano  condemned the killings and underlined  how crucial it is that the people in the country remain calm and prevent any worsening of the interethnic harmony and coexistence in the country.

"Its is crucial that a thorough investigation take place and perpetrators are brought to justice and we are of course supporting the efforts of the authorities. It is important that the locals support the police and the authorities but it is also very important that calm prevails and that nobody is attributing guilt prematurely or even taking justice in their hands."

Macedonia declared independence from the dissolving Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1991.

In official EU documents, Macedonia is referred to as "the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" due to a dispute with Greece over the country's name, which is identical to that of a Greek province.

Macedonia is an ethnic mosaic. Slavic Macedonians represent the largest group (64% of the population). Ethnic Albanians are the second biggest minority (25%), with Turks (3%) and Roma (1.9%) also present.

Since independence, integrating the ethnic Albanians has proved a cumbersome process, and the country has come close to civil war.

The August 2001 Ohrid Framework Agreement, brokered by Western powers, halted the brinkmanship between the ethnic-Albanian communities (organised militarily in the National Liberation Army) and Macedonian forces.

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