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Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) talks to his Ukrainian counterpart Leonid Kuchma as they watch Ukraine's Independence Day parade in central Kiev, August 24, 2001. Putin said the world should be prepared to use force to end violence in the Balkans and blamed the West for allowing arms to reach rebels in Macedonia. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)


Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Macedonia's President Boris Trajkovski shake hands as they meet in the Ukrainian capital Kiev, August 24, 2001. The two presidents discussed the situation in Macedonia and possible variants of solving the conflict. REUTERS/KREMLIN PRESS-SERVICE


Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) listens to his Macedonian counterpart Boris Trajkovski as they attend Ukraine's Independence Day parade in central Kiev, August 24, 2001. Ukraine marks the tenth anniversary of its independence on Friday. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich


Macedonians wave to a Macedonian armoured personnel carrier as it passes a roadblock near the Macedonia-Kosovo border at Blace August 24, 2001, where around 50 people have stopped NATO troops using their main supply route to Kosovo for almost a week. The crowd is angry that NATO's new mission in Macedonia involves concessions to Albanian guerrillas and believe, like many commentators, that it will fail to disarm rebels who have evicted Macedonians from their homes. REUTERS/Petr Josek


Greek soldiers make their way to Macedonia as they drive through the Greek-Macedonian border, August 24, 2001. The first convoy of a total of 400 Greek soldiers who will participate NATO's "Essential Harvest" operation in Macedonia to collect weapons from Albanians rebels departed early hours for the Macedonian town of Kirlovak. REUTERS/Grigoris Siamidis


Commanding the 6th USA Fleet three-star Admiral Gregory Johnson visited yesterday the Naval Base in Varna. He is paying a three-day official visit to Bulgaria
Photo Viara Kaikova Standartnews

Putin toughens stand on Balkan crisis.

the Indian Express


MOSCOW, AUGUST 24: RUSSIAN President Vladimir Putin has blamed the ethnic Albanian terrorists for ongoing crisis in Macedonia. Its terrorists, not rebels, concerned over humanitarian, linguistic or religious issues who are active in the region, he told mediapersons today, after his talks with Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski in Ukrainian capital Kiev.

We are facing terrorists, and not some rebels, Putin said. They are people with aggressive strivings, whose true aim is not to resolve humanitarian problems and, in particular, language problems, but political ones, to re-carve the map of Europe.

The Russian President arrived in Kiev on Thursday to participate in the celebrations of the 10th anniversary of Ukraines independence and to discuss Macedonian crisis with Trajkovski.

Russia supports the efforts of the Trajkovski, in the struggle against terrorists and the just resolution of the problem that exist in the country. The Russian Foreign Ministry has expressed reservations about NATOs plan to disarm ethnic Albanian rebels, fighting Macedonian government forces.

The use of force in the Balkans, is fraught with dangerps, Putin said, adding that The Balkan, in particular, the Macedonian problems cant be resolved unless the legitimate grievances of nations, especially Albanians, are resolved. He said that the problem of the region cant be resolved purely by declarations or simulation of activity.

If we really want to resolve the problems, we should above all think of sealing off the channels through which arms are supplied to region, Putin said, while referring to Kosovo, as the source of arms supply to terrorists.He made it clear that the problem of disarming terrorists in Kosovo and Balkans was long overdue.

Therefore, we support the efforts of the international community in resolving that issue, the Russian leader said.Appreciating Russias role in resolving the problems of the region, Trajkovski reiterated that the Balkan crisis emanated from Kosovo, which he called a bleeding wound of Europe.

UN enacts regulation to monitor property sales in mixed neighbourhoods in Kosovo.

24 August The head of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), Hans Haekkerup, has signed a new regulation to ensure that all proposed contracts for property sales in certain mixed neighbourhoods in Kosovo would be thoroughly reviewed by a municipal administrator before being approved.

The measure is intended to monitor inter-ethnic property sales in areas where minorities have been fleeing, UNMIK said, and not to prevent property exchange, but to ensure that irregular sales that are detrimental to minority rights or Kosovo's multiethnic character are not validated by the courts.

To designate areas where proposed sales should be reviewed, Mr. Haekkerup will take into consideration security concerns that could arise from the sale of the property, evidence of a systematic pattern of sales of minority properties at unrealistic prices and areas specifically designated for the early return of minorities.

The regulation also establishes a regional review committee for consistent implementation and calls for Mr. Haekkerup to review it every six months to see if it is still needed.

Free Democrats Pledge to Support Macedonia Mission.

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

F.A.Z. BERLIN. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, trying to win parliamentary approval for German participation in a Macedonia peacekeeping mission, has picked up support from one of the country's opposition parties.

Following a meeting on Thursday evening with the chancellor, the chairman of the Free Democratic Party said his party's lawmakers would support the deployment of 500 German soldiers to the Balkan country when parliamentarians vote on Wednesday in a special midsummer session.

Mr. Schröder was able to win over FDP Chairman Guido Westerwelle with assurances about the financing of the 30-day mission, which is called Operation Essential Harvest. The government plans to allot DM120 million ($55 million) to cover the stationing of the troops and DM15 million to cover other costs. The money will not come from the military's already strained budget, but will come from the overall federal budget. During Thursday evening's meeting, Mr. Schröder also promised that any additional funds needed would not come from the military's budget.

Mr. Westerwelle's endorsement provides Mr. Schröder with much-needed support as the chancellor works to overcome resistance to the mission from parliament's other opposition parties and from dissidents in his own party, the Social Democrats.

To win approval, Mr. Schröder needs a simple majority of votes from the lawmakers. The chancellor's coalition of Social Democrats and Alliance 90/The Greens has a 16-seat majority in the parliament. The Free Democrats have 43 seats.

Leaders of the country's biggest opposition party, the Christian Democratic Union, expressed different views about their position on Friday. In the past, the party has tied its support to additional funding for the German military, but Volker Rühe, a Christian Democrat and a former defense minister, called Mr. Schröder's new financing plan an "irresponsible patchwork."

Party Chairwoman Angela Merkel, however, indicated that room for compromise still existed. "We will do everything possible to find a workable solution," Ms. Merkel said.

Mr. Schröder planned to meet with Ms. Merkel on Friday evening to discuss the issue.

Behind the scenes, leading members of the Social Democrats are lobbying furiously in their effort to win over the skeptics in their ranks. Gernot Erler, a deputy leader of the party's parliamentary group who is conducting a phone and fax campaign from his home in the southwestern city of Freiburg, said he knew how damaging a defeat would be to Mr. Schröder. "That would be the first important case in which the government did not stand together -- a sign of weakness for the coalition," he said.

The 500 German soldiers would join 3,000 troops from other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The force will collect weapons voluntarily surrendered by ethnic Albanian rebels in Macedonia.


Albanian rebels and mafia are one and the same thing.

Business A.M.

by Jamie Dettmer

TWO summers on from the Nato intervention and still the Balkans remains a problem. This time the threat is to Macedonia, as militant Albanians along with their Kosovar backers seem determined to wreck the chances of a peace accord with the government.

For sceptics of the wests intervention in 1999, the Albanian trouble now is merely the fulfilment of what they predicted. They argued that from the ashes of a Greater Serbia, a Greater Albania would rise, mocking the wests attempts to bring order and calm to the region.
Further, there was ample evidence available two summers ago about the ties of the so-called Albanian national liberation struggle to organised crime, and how intertwined the Albanian mafia was and still is with the political militants. Chaos allows the criminals to flourish and, arguably, the militants have no wish for an accord or peace it would be bad for business.

US intelligence operatives dealing firsthand with the Kosovo Liberation Army reported their anxieties to their superiors about the organised crime links. But information detailing KLA links with heroin trafficking and prostitution was neglected at the time, as was the developing relationship with Bulgarias top mafia groups.

The intelligence was so completely ignored that, to the horror of state department officials, US army generals argued after the forced Serb withdrawal from Kosovo that the policing of the benighted province should be handed over to the KLA, eliciting from one exasperated civilian the remark: Thats great. Lets put the criminals in charge of law enforcement.

Now, as Nato struggles to prevent yet another dirty Balkan war, western governments appear determined to downplay the criminal links of the militant Albanians in Macedonia. Presumably they are doing so because to highlight the ties could well provoke public disaffection with Natos continued presence in Kosovo, and prompt questions about why the west is falling over itself to force the Macedonians to agree terms instead of taking a much harder line with the Albanians.

Apart from anything else, ignoring the crime dimension means ignoring the enslavement and exploitation of thousands of young, vulnerable Balkan women. Isnt Nato in the Balkans on a moral mission?

According to a Home Office report, Albanians or Kosovars now control more than two-thirds of the massage parlours in London.

London isnt the only European capital to have witnessed an astonishing rise in Albanian-run sexual slavery the police in Rome, Milan, Frankfurt, Paris, Amsterdam, Athens and Stockholm have also reported an upsurge.

More than 8,000 Albanian girls are thought to be working as prostitutes in Italy a third of them probably teenagers. Some sources maintain the Albanians have grabbed the prostitution racket in the north of the country away from one of Italys toughest mafia groups, the Ndrangheta.

According to the French criminologist Xavier Raufer, there is no difference between Albanian militant groups and the Albanian mafia they are the same he insists, arguing that conflict in the Balkans assists the Albanian mafias activities that, in turn, provide funds for the liberation struggle. The two feed on each other.

Theres no such thing as rebels and militias on the one hand and the Albanian mafia on the other. In the Albanian world in Albania and Kosovo and in the Albanian-populated part of Macedonia you have clans. In those clans you have a mix of young men fighting for the cause of national liberation, young men belonging to the mafia, young men driving their cousins or other girls from the village into prostitution. The guys are liberation fighters by day and sell heroin by night, or vice versa, Mr Raufer said.

The Italian prosecutor Catal do Motta says the Albanian mafia is especially violent. He echoes counterparts in other western European states who are facing a similar challenge, one that is beginning to show up in the US.

Meanwhile, the politicians turn a blind eye to the tightening grip of organised crime on the politics of the region. In neighbouring Bulgaria, the head of the countrys top mafia group has been appointed as a special adviser to the countrys new prime minister. No outcry ensures from the EU or Washington.

Rebels ready to hand captured tank to Nato.

the Times


COMMANDER MSUSI, the leader of the Albanian National Liberation Armys 115 Brigade, whose post is dug into the hills just south of the Macedonian-Kosovan border, is the proud owner of a Russian T55 tank in full working order.
It was captured from the enemy, but is soon to be handed over to Nato troops as one of the largest items on the NLAs disarmament list. The tank is hidden about three miles from the Albanian-populated village of Radusa which is heaving with NLA gunmen, all of whom have a maximum of four weeks before they have to hand over their coveted Kalashnikovs at a Nato-designated arms-collection point.

The men of 115 Brigade say that their tank has seen action and they will be sorry to see it go. Eight shells are left in the ammunition box.

Commander Msusi, 45, a teacher by profession who will go back to his classroom once disarmament is complete, promises to hand over everything from his brigade, from the T55 to the trench-full of rocket-propelled grenades at his units main training area outside the village.

Four well-concealed British soldiers, presumably SAS men engaging in its traditional role of deep reconnaissance, turned up three days ago in Radusa in four-wheel-drive vehicles and are living in a house in the village. Their jobs is to make sure that Commander Msusis arsenal is gathered together and placed in the collection point near by.

They have clearly won the respect of Commander Msusi. He was positively protective towards them and did not want photographers entering the village to try to find them.

Natos arms-collection operation is scheduled to start on Monday. According to the deadline set by the Macedonian Parliament, one third of the NLA arms have to be handed over by August 31, the date for the first parliamentary hearing to ratify the peace settlement.

Nato has agreed that the total number of arms to be surrendered is about 3,000. So 1,000 weapons, not just Kalashnikovs but a representative sample of weaponry (perhaps even Commander Msusis tank), must be given to Nato over a period of five days, from Monday to Friday next week.

Walking around Radusa, which is a hard hours drive from Tetovo along rugged tracks, it is difficult to envisage these tough-looking men voluntarily swapping their Kalashnikovs for a broom and pitchfork. But the NLA is already positioning some weapons to be ready for the Nato troops who will arrive each day at the designated areas on American Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters.

After it was revealed yesterday that Britain was having to send 2,000 troops instead of the originally planned 1,000, Canada and Italy offered reconnaissance units and engineering squadrons. Britains total contribution will still, however, be close to 2,000.

The German Cabinet gave the go-ahead yesterday for the deployment of 500 soldiers in Macedonia, but it was still uncertain whether the Government will be able to secure broad-based parliamentary approval. The parliamentary vote will be held next Wednesday.

Peter Struck, the Social Democratic chief whip, said that backbench resistance had melted to only four deputies, but at least six contacted yesterday expressed determination to vote against what one called a ridiculous, risky and thoroughly illogical mission.

Barbarism and the Erasure of Culture.


The destruction of Sveti Anastasi
by Christopher Deliso
August 24, 2001

When the revered fourteenth-century Monastery of Sveti Anastasi in Leshok was blown up earlier this week, Macedonian Government Spokesman Antonio Milososki summarized the event concisely: "This," he said, "is barbarism."

Milososki's simple statement captured the essence of the matter: that the destruction of such a historical and cultural treasure as the Leshok Monastery was an act that could only be described as barbaric, a thoughtless, misanthropic destruction of a unique and irreplaceable piece of the common European heritage. Yet for all its ignorance, this act meant something more than a bunch of unemployed young terrorists playing with explosives (though such individuals no doubt executed the destruction). It was a deliberate attempt to erase any trace of Macedonia's historical continuity, to wipe the presence of the past clear off the map. As such, the destruction of the Leshok Monastery was a calculated attempt by Albanian terrorists to exert their territorial dominance, by obliterating a valuable part of Macedonian heritage, a treasure of art and religion that had been listed as a world heritage site by UNESCO.

This is not the first time such a thing has happened. In the dark aftermath of the Kosovo bombings by NATO occurred the wholesale destruction and desecration of over seventy-five Orthodox churches and monasteries (and this only between June-October 1999)! Unsurprisingly, over one-quarter of these churches were located in the zone under control of the U.S. (we have to forgive American laziness, though after all, Camp Bondsteel has that great espresso bar and gym). Together with the forced removal and intimidation of the Serbian people from Kosovo, the policy of destruction of Orthodox churches was undertaken by the KLA so as to strengthen Albanian claims to Kosovo. By forcing Serbs to leave their ancestral homeland, and then destroying all traces of Serbian culture, the Albanians would have a stronger case for claiming the 'ethnic purity' of Kosovo, and so, uniting it with Albania.

The same pattern is being repeated in Macedonia, which should come as no surprise, since the NLA is basically the KLA rechristened. Even before Leshok, Albanian strongmen have been attacking Orthodox monasteries in Macedonia, occupying and desecrating one in early May near Kumanovo.

The purpose of this intimidation and barbarism is both psychological (intended to demoralize and wound the Macedonian people), and tangible: that is, the 'cleansing' of the monastery from the hills of Leshok is a precursor to the ethnic cleansing of the Macedonian people in the area.

Intimidation of the Serbian population and the destruction of Serbian monasteries in Kosovo has not stopped since 1999. In the lawless U.N. 'protectorate', Albanian gangs have a free hand to terrorize and desecrate. A recent press release from the Decani Monastery in Kosovo illustrates the abysmal situation: "The Decani Monastery as well as all other Serbian Orthodox monastic communities still remain in complete isolation from the majority ethnic Albanian community. Our monks and nuns do not enjoy basic human rights and in most cases cannot leave the monastery walls. We in Decani are in great risk if we leave our monastery estate." The press release goes on to document the seizure of monastery property by the Kosovar Albanian authorities, and a litany of abuses committed: "First they (the Albanians) started to damage our forest last year in June in order to build a water tower. As soon as we reacted and had Mr. Kouchner (Bernard Kouchner of the UN) stop their works the monastery was attacked by nine mortar grenades."

Although Albanian barbarism has (so far) spared the monastery's buildings, various other activities conducted there show the general contempt in which the monks are held: "In the second half of this past July we noticed that Albanian swimmers who come to the river beneath the monastery (on our property, which we do not deny them), began damaging the wooden bridge and burning the wooden beams. In addition they leave lots of garbage near the river and near the spring of mineral water which we use. The entire surrounding is also polluted with feces which they also leave behind."

Given the fact that the monks want to "allow the swimmers to use the nature in a civilized way", there would seem to be room for nothing but gratitude on the part of the Kosovars involved. Yet the barbarism of wanton destruction at work here, a product of of ignorance and boredom, is the rule in 'liberated' Kosovo.

No Casualties Only Macedonia's Cultural Heritage
Although the destruction of Leshok Monastery has triggered a firestorm of protest, the dust will soon settle and eventually, as has already happened in Kosovo, Western observers will forget. They will forget that what was destroyed was priceless, to scholars, travelers and, most importantly, to the people of Orthodox faith who loved these structures, which attested to the genius and creativity of previous generations. The ignorant destruction of Leshok Monastery is a loss not only to the cultural heritage of Macedonia, but to Europe, and indeed, to the whole world.

Part of the reason that people will forget is that no one was killed in the mining of Leshok. The same was true earlier this year, when the equally barbaric Taliban blew up several immense and ancient Buddha statues in the mountains of Afghanistan. Why did they do this? Because, as Diderot said, barbarism is the next step from fanaticism; and the gaze of fanaticism destroys whatever it looks upon. The Buddhas of Afghanistan were intolerable to the Taliban because they represented the beliefs and values of another culture; and so they had to be destroyed. But since no one died in their destruction, the 'world community' could only throw up its hands in despair, UNESCO could only plead in vain, and the Taliban was left alone to fulfill its pig-headed designs. The point is, no one cared too much because there were no fatalities. Yet at work here was a subtler form of 'ethnic cleansing'; the erasure of a whole culture, its legacy and its history, which could not possibly have posed a threat to the Taliban. Tibet was not poised to attack it, and there were no Buddhist armies bearing down; but it was unthinkable to the Taliban that their 'pure' state had ever experienced a different culture. And so they attempted the erasure of our collective memory regarding that culture.

The obvious connection between the destruction of the Buddhas and the Albanian attacks on Orthodox monasteries in the Balkans is the Muslim one. Many commentators have latched on to this, and there is some truth to it.

After all, religious fighters from Chechnya, Iran, Afghanistan, etc., have long been at work with the KLA and NLA in Kosovo and Macedonia. Yet Albanian barbarism seems to be less overtly religious in tone (that is, less fanatical),and more politically-motivated; what I would call a 'lazy barbarism.' As Muslims, the Albanians are not in the same league as the Saudis, Iranians or the Taliban. They were only converted from Catholicism and Orthodoxy by the Ottoman Turks relatively recently, and even then not completely. Islam has never been central to Albanian identity, except insofar as it has proved a useful tool for gaining military assistance from more 'fanatical' Muslim countries, and in making cynical appeals of religious persecution to the West. In every case, religious war is less about the spiritual than about what kind of society people want to live in. In this, it can be said that the Albanians express their devout Muslim religion mainly in their disdain for birth control. This the uncontrolled spiralling of Albanian population is a war Macedonia cannot win.

The Lazy Man's Barbarism
If the NLA is not motivated by religion, per se, than what can explain their tactics? Basically, it is the desire (as seen in Kosovo) to deny the existence of another culture; but here, unlike in Afghanistan, it is done merely to exert territorial control. After enough Macedonians have been driven from their homes, and enough signs of Macedonian culture have been obliterated, the Albanians will press their case more strongly. "We have a right to keep this land," they'll argue. "Look, there are no Macedonians here!" The cultural forgetting that inevitably follows such acts greatly empowers what I call the lazy man's barbarism a creeping, sinister sort of barbarism that spreads slowly until the common perception of reality (i.e., the status quo) has been eroded and transformed into a different reality, one more amenable to the barbarians.

As such, the Albanian destruction and desecration of Orthodox monasteries and churches in the Balkans has less to do with religious fanaticism and more to do with erasing the traces of Slavic culture, so as to press their territorial claims. Almost no one except the English-speaking media still believes the statements of the NLA, that they are fighting for equal rights and not territory. It is now even being admitted by these same news sources that Western journalists are much more likely to interview Albanians than Macedonians, and that the NLA has effectively been legitimized by its PR work.

Of course, its tireless advocates in Washington have been hard at work in trumpeting the need for the alleged 'human rights' agenda of the NLA to be met.

Little wonder. There's no need to recite the litany of violations and deceptions perpetrated by the U.S. government as it has surreptitiously changed the status quo in the last few months, from Aracinovo and Prizren, to the blocking of Ukrainian aid to the recent installation of a no-fly zone for the Macedonians on their own territory. A recent account of one eyewitness in Tetovo says it all: "The sight of the U.S. choppers prompted the ethnic Albanian villagers to cheer wildly, waving their arms to encourage 'their' airforce." The same observer was greeted by the NLA with the shout of "God bless America and Canada too for all that they have provided us!" After being shown the 'impressive arsenal' of the local NLA unit, this observer was told, "Thanks to Uncle Sam, the Macedonians are no match for us." Another Albanian was quoted in Skopje with the same belief: "I know the big powers are on our side," he said with certainty. "I would love for them (NATO) to be here for twenty years."

Twenty years is certainly more than enough time for the world to forget about Leshok. By failing to prevent such an outrage against the very principles of the civilized world, the West betrays its tacit complicity in this barbarism. It should come as no surprise that the U.S. has tolerated the KLA/NLA's ignorant but purposeful policy of the destruction of culture. After all, it has been in collusion with Albania for the past decade in hopes of creating a destabilizing Albanian-Turkish Balkan axis. And the U.S. is without a doubt the most barbaric empire of any of those that ever claimed to be civilized. The enlightened nation that bombed Belgrade and tolerated the destruction of Serbia's cultural heartland is to this day still encouraging its NLA lackeys, confident that Macedonia will not dare defend itself.

On the theme of the barbaric, we will leave off with a quote from one of America's finest, Lieutenant General Mike Short (recorded in D. Halberstam, "Clinton's war with the generals," Vanity Fair, September 2001). This article, which chronicles the rise to power of the 'fiercely competive' and bellicose Wesley Clark (and his later falling-out with the administration), gives us a glimpse into the clever mind of an American general. Long on American bravado and threats, Short allegedly told the Serbians, before the Kosovo bombing, "Why don't you go out now and drive around your city and take one last look at it as it is today, because it will never look that way again."

The proud malice of the oppresser, the ignorance of the barbarian; it is not hard to see how American and Albanian barbarism stand together as one. On the hills of Leshok, where only rubble is left to attest to a great gift of Macedonia's cultural heritage, things will never look the same again.

Christopher Deliso is a San Francisco-based travel writer and journalist with special interest in the Balkans. He received his BA in Philosophy and Greek (Hampshire College, 1997) and an M.Phil with distinction in Byzantine Studies (Oxford University, 1999). From 1997-2000 Mr. Deliso lived and worked in Ireland, England, Turkey and Greece, and he spent one month in Macedonia in January, 2000. He is currently involved with investigating media and governmental policies regarding the Macedonian crisis, and he publishes regularly on European travel destinations."

Nato mission complicates Greek tensions.



An unwelcome sight for many Macedonians.

By Nick Thorpe in Skopje

The multinational Nato peace-keeping operation in Macedonia is also having an impact on relations between countries in the whole of south-eastern Europe.

In particular, there have been intense political contacts between Macedonia and Greece over the deployment of a large Greek military contingent within the Nato operation, and the continuing dispute over the use of the name Macedonia.

For many Macedonians the sight of the blue and white Greek flag on the back of military vehicles and flying prominently from the Greek battle group headquarters near Skopje is not an entirely welcome one.

Macedonia has been locked in dispute with Greece since independence in 1992 over its claim to the name of Macedonia.

Greece insists that Macedonia continue to be called FYROM - the Former Yugoslav Republic Of Macedonia - to rule out any implied desire to create Greater Macedonia, including what is now the northern Greek province of the same name.

An interim agreement between the two countries in 1996 allowed trade and diplomatic representation to resume.

But the talks on the name issue, under the auspices of the United Nations, appear to be making little progress.


Simple gesture

Greece is sending 450 troops to Macedonia to help coolect weapons from the ethnic Albanian rebels. The weapons collected will also be transported to Greece for destruction.

But many Macedonians feel Greece could help far more with just a simple gesture - the recognition of their name.

They argue that this would help Macedonia's own sense of security, which in turn would encourage the population to accept the need for lasting concessions to their Albanian minority.

Macedonians in village behind enemy lines say that not even NATO can help.


By Elena Becatoros, Associated Press, 8/24/2001 02:02

LESOK, Macedonia (AP) Nikola Bozinovski paused briefly as shots echoed from the forested hills. ''Don't worry, it's nothing,'' he said, turning his attention back to the plums laid out on his garden table.

Occasional gunfire is not unusual for the few remaining residents of this Macedonian village deep inside rebel-held territory. The surrounding roads and countryside are patrolled by armed ethnic Albanians who used their guns to gain ground and soon must surrender them to NATO soldiers.

Under a Western-backed peace plan, members of the self-styled rebel National Liberation Army are to turn their weapons over to a 3,500-strong NATO force being deployed in the troubled Balkan country.

But the scene playing out in Lesok underscores the first major challenge confronting the alliance as it prepares to collect and destroy rebel arms in a British-led mission that could begin as early as Monday. No one really knows how many weapons the militants have the government says 85,000, while the NLA says the number is much lower, closer to 2,000.

Few in Lesok believe the rebels encircling them will hand in all their weapons.

NATO repeatedly has stressed that its mission is not peacekeeping, and its troops cannot separate the two sides.

''We feel abandoned,'' Bozinovski said, sitting beside the flower beds in his small garden. ''Nobody can help us not even NATO.''

Only 29 Macedonians, most of them elderly, still live in the village about 4 miles northwest of predominantly ethnic Albanian Tetovo, Macedonia's second-largest city. Residents say Lesok used to have a population of about 700 before the rebels launched their insurgency in February, demanding greater rights for the country's ethnic Albanians.

Most villagers fled in late July during heavy fighting in the area between government forces and the rebels. An army checkpoint near the village was overrun by the NLA, which now controls all access roads and the hills overlooking the town.

Those who stayed behind in what now seems like a ghost town say they live in fear of rebel patrols that pass through every few days.

''We sleep like rabbits,'' Bozinovski says. ''We don't even know what day it is. We live like Indians in a reservation.''

Residents say the rebels don't physically harm them, but often loot their homes and have told them to leave Lesok. Bozinovski's belongings lie scattered around the house where they were pulled out of smashed closets. NLA slogans have been scrawled in red ink across his bedroom wall.

''They come in here and do what they want they take whatever they want,'' said Stefos Tegos, who said he is afraid to live in the village and was just visiting his home before returning to Tetovo.

''They are up there in the hills. They can see everything we do,'' he said.

An explosion that destroyed an Orthodox church on the grounds of Lesok's 13th century monastery this week has increased tension. The Macedonian government blamed the rebels for the attack, but the NLA insisted it had nothing to do with the blast.

Whoever is to blame, it has made Lesok even more uneasy. But the remaining villagers are determined not to abandon their homes.

''We are not leaving,'' Bozinovski said as he sipped homemade rakia, a brandy-like drink made from fermented fruit. ''I will only leave if they force me out at gunpoint.''

Staying won't be easy. Unable to travel far outside the village, the people of Lesok are beginning to run low on supplies.

''The food problem hasn't been very serious. But as time goes by, food needs become more acute,'' said Caroline Douillez of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which delivered aid to Lesok on Wednesday.

Villagers have come to an agreement with a neighboring ethnic Albanian village, Slatino, and walk there to buy bread. But farming is suffering, with villagers unable to tend their fields and livestock. Pigs and ducks wander on the main street, and the path by the roadside is overrun by weeds.

''Everything has been abandoned,'' said Ivan Atanasoski. ''It is a miserable, morbid situation.''

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