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Bulgarian nominated Prime Minister Simeon Saxe-Coburg looks on after a meeting with Bulgarian President Petar Stoyanov in the Presidential office in Sofia, July 22, 2001. Bulgaria's Prime Monister designate, the former King Simeon II, on Sunday unveiled the composition of his future government in which a young Western-educated financier became an economic supremo. REUTERS/Oleg Popov REUTERS

Macedonia accuses NATO of invading air space.


SKOPJE, July 22 (AFP) -

The Macedonian defence ministry on Sunday accused NATO of invading its air space, saying two alliance helicopters had landed in territory held by ethnic Albanian rebels near the northern border with Kosovo.

A NATO spokesman denied the accusations and said he was concerned that repeated accusations by the Macedonians could hinder their cooperation in the country, which has been rocked by an ethnic Albanian uprising since February.

The defence ministry said in a statement that it wanted an explanation from NATO, which runs a huge peacekeeping operation in Kosovo and has vital support bases in Macedonia, why it had "twice violated its air space."

The ministry said two KFOR helicopters had landed on Macedonian territory "without any warning."

"Yesterday (Saturday), between 4:45 and 5:00 pm (1445 and 1505 GMT) a KFOR Chinook helicopter landed in the area of Sipkovica, dropping a load of an unknown nature, before heading back to Kosovo."

Sipkovica is key rebel stronghold and thought to be the rebel general headquarters.

"Fifteen minutes later the same thing happened near Brodec, the helicopter dropping off another container and returning to Kosovo," the ministry said.

A KFOR spokesman in Skopje denied that the helicopters had landed in Macedonia and said the alliance was puzzled by the statement.

"It's very strange," said US Major Barry Johnson. "The only thing we can attribute it to is two German Chinook helicopters putting up a radio relay on the Kosovo side of the border."

He said the transmitter was to relay signals bewteen the German army base in Prizren in southern Kosovo, and their logistic support base in Tetovo in northwest Macedonia.

He called the statement "disconcerting" as it came just a day after Skopje accused KFOR of dropping flares from helicopters over the residence of President Boris Trajkovski.

Johnson said that British helicopters had overflown the building on a Macedonian-approved flight path and had automatically dropped heat-emitting anti-missile deflectors when they registered the presence of a radar lock-on from the vicinity.

He said the government statements "do not lend to cooperation between NATO and the ministry. It's a real problem."

Many Macedonians are still suspicious of NATO for backing ethnic Albanian guerrillas in the 1999 conflict over Kosovo and failing to crack down effectively on Albanian extremists using the province as a rear base for their six-month campaign against the government to win more rights.

Ethnic Albanians defy cease-fire, attack Macedonian forces.



SKOPJE, Macedonia (July 22, 2001 9:57 a.m. EDT) - Violating a cease-fire that had held for two weeks, ethnic Albanian insurgents launched an infantry attack on government forces in the Tetovo area Sunday, the Defense Ministry said.

Spokesman Marjan Djurovski said the rebels opened fire on Macedonian army positions from the villages of Sipkovica and Gajre, and that government troops responded. Two Macedonian soldiers were wounded in the two-hour exchange.

"The Macedonian forces were under direct fire and they returned fire with infantry weapons according to the latest orders from the general staff," which told troops to respond if under attack, Djurovski said.

It was not immediately clear if the cease-fire violation would have a negative impact on tentative plans to resume peace talks Monday between representatives of majority Macedonians and ethnic Albanian politicians.

The Macedonian government said it had informed the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the European Monitoring Mission of the cease-fire violation.

It also said it had received field reports that "Albanian terrorists" were moving toward Tetovo's soccer stadium on the outskirts of the city and Macedonian forces stationed there.

The talks aimed at averting full-scale war in Macedonia have been stalled since Thursday after Macedonia's ruling party rejected a Western-backed peace proposal prompting the ethnic Albanians to walk out in protest.

New hope for the talks came Friday. After a day of closed-door lobbying by Western envoys, ethnic Albanian officials signaled their willingness to return to the negotiating table.

The Defense Ministry said there was sporadic shooting late Saturday and early Sunday in the Kumanovo region, some 20 miles northeast of Skopje. There was no word of injuries.

It also reported an incident over the weekend in another border area known as a smuggling route.

One soldier was lightly wounded when an army patrol encountered a group of "uniformed men" in the Rostuse area, 40 miles southwest of Skopje, close to the Albanian border, the statement said. It said a firefight lasted about three hours and that the "terrorist group was dispersed."

The high tensions were illustrated by two minor incidents Saturday.

The Defense Ministry claimed that a helicopter with KFOR markings - the acronym of the NATO-led Kosovo peacekeeping force - landed inside Macedonia and unloaded two crates before returning to Kosovo, prompting the military to seek an explanation from KFOR.

However, U.S. Army Maj. Barry Johnson, a spokesman for KFOR in Macedonia, said: "Helicopters were involved in establishing mobile radio relay stations and they landed in Kosovo territory. They did not land in Macedonia."

Also Saturday, the Macedonian government protested and demanded an explanation from KFOR after a British helicopter fired several flares above a residential area of Skopje where the president and the prime minister live.

The explanation was that automatic systems aboard the helicopter reacted to an increase in radiation in the zone, releasing the flares as a precaution to protect the aircraft from a possible infrared-guided rocket attack.

Ethnic Albanian militants launched their insurgency against government forces in February in a campaign to demand more rights.

Majority Macedonians say the ethnic Albanians, who make up nearly one-third of Macedonia's population of 2 million, already enjoy enough protection under the constitution and that their struggle is aimed at carving up the country.

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