Rebels in Macedonia Want Countrywide War
SELCE, Macedonia – The guns of Tetovo are so close.
Artillery shells from Macedonian forces less than two miles away fall across the steep valley of budding almond trees and yellow primrose.
At nightfall, red tracer rounds from heavy machine guns race up from the light of the city.
Selce, the main rebel stronghold outside Tetovo, is out of reach of the guns for now. But there is no electricity anymore, and the roads to the city are blocked. The only way into the village of 3,400 is a four-hour hike over hills and through alpine meadows.
Through attack and isolation, Macedonian authorities hope to snuff out the insurgents' drive to make ethnic Albanians equal partners with the Slavs, who control the government and the armed forces.
But there is no sign of submission by the commander of the rebels in Selce.
"We will take this war to all of Macedonia," says Arban Aliu, who oversees one of the rebel companies among what he claims are more than 2,000 armed fighters in the area around Tetovo, Macedonia's second-largest city. "Look, the Macedonians are cowards, they attack us only from a distance.
"They don't dare come and challenge us face to face."
For the moment, his confidence has been reinforced by the reluctance of the Macedonian forces to move beyond the city limits.
The government sent tanks rumbling into Tetovo on Monday and said preparations were under way for a major counteroffensive. But its response to the rebels on the outskirts of the city has been mainly restricted to six days of artillery barrages of suspected insurgent positions.
Aliu declined to give details of the forces and firepower at the disposal of the National Liberation Army. He said only: "We are fully prepared for war."
He said supplies and equipment reach the rebels from both inside Macedonia and from neighboring Kosovo, where he and many other rebel fighters took part in the war against Yugoslavia.
Boasting of successes, Aliu said his forces shot down the Macedonian army helicopter transporting police officers that crashed Saturday on the slopes north of Tetovo. One person was killed and 15 others injured. The initial military report said the helicopter had hit an antenna near a ski resort.
Aliu also predicted mass defections of ethnic Albanian soldiers if the regular army gets directly involved in the conflict. He claims some defectors have already joined the rebel ranks.
"The fight is just begun," he said. "The Macedonians will soon feel how strong we are."
The government has relied primarily on police and special antiterrorist units to fight the rebels, leading to speculation about the skills of the conscript army and the loyalty of its ethnic Albanian members.
Ethnic Albanians account for at least a quarter of Macedonia's 2 million people, and although ethnic relations in Slav-dominated Macedonia have been relatively trouble-free — an ethnic Albanian party is a partner in the government — substantial numbers of the minority feel they are treated as second-class citizens.
Selce, like the rest of the places on the rebel-held hills, has fallen into a military rhythm. Fighters with automatic weapons stand guard at positions on the edge of the village and scan the ridges for snipers. New recruits — about 30 a day — are given places to stay in any home that can take them. Cars, unable to leave the village because of the Macedonian road blockade, are parked haphazardly.
Young boys fashion wooden sticks and metal pipes into toy guns, and some have scribbled the initials of the rebel group — UCK in Albanian — on T-shirts and headbands.
The scenes suggest a level of organization and military discipline developing among the rebels.
"Kosovo inspired us a great deal," Aliu said. "We can do the same thing here."