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Ex-Fighters Warn of Macedonia Bloodshed

September 2, 2003

VAKSINCE, Macedonia (AP) _ Former ethnic Albanian fighters warned on Tuesday that they might take up arms again if Macedonian government forces hunting a fugitive militant push too far in the siege of a village.

The siege of Vaksince has raised fears of a return to 2001 clashes that shook this tiny Balkan nation, where tensions are high between the minority ethnic Albanians and the ethnic Slav majority.

Hundreds of residents have fled the mainly ethnic Albanian village since government troops and police, using helicopters, trucks and roadblocks, sealed it off in a hunt for Avdil Jakupi, leader of the self-styled Albanian National Army.

Former fighters in the 2001 insurrection warned if Macedonia’s forces push further, they will fight back.

Naim Aliti, who identified himself as a former fighter, said villagers would not stop multiethnic units of the regular police from entering but warned against a push by special forces posted nearby.

``If there is a need, we will go back to being the National Liberation Army,″ he said, referring to the rebel group that fought in the 2001 insurrection.

Several men in the village, 10 miles northeast of the capital, Skopje, were armed on Monday and Tuesday. Aliti and his companions denied any links to Jakupi or his group.

Anticipating violence, villagers continued leaving Vaksince on Tuesday. Ten vehicles left in the course of one hour, packed with women and children.

Villager Isni Zairi, holding tight to the rope attached to the family cow, said he planned to return after bringing it to a safe place. He said 20 members of his extended family _ mostly women and children _ had left Vaksince.

``The situation is getting worse,″ he said. ``We are surrounded by two hostile sides.″

In nearby Lojani, Selami Mehmeti, the community leader, said nearly a third of the residents had left. Like other ethnic Albanians in the region, Mehmeti appeared skeptical about the true aims of authorities.

``For one tick, they are burning the whole blanket,″ he said. ``Thirty thousand people are under siege, just because they say they want to arrest just a few people.″

The 2001 insurrection ended in a Western-brokered peace plan, but tensions persist. Jakupi’s ANA has taken responsibility for several attacks in Macedonia since the peace agreement took force.

Fears of clashes have risen in recent weeks, following grenade attacks on government buildings in Skopje.

Late Monday, in a statement posted on its Web site, ANA gave a 24-hour ultimatum, expiring Tuesday afternoon, to Macedonian troops to pull out or its members would ``use any means available to accomplish a patriotic duty.″

The group said in a statement Tuesday its forces were on standby for the ``liberation ... and unification of ethnic Albanian lands in a single state.″ But the deadline passed peacefully.

The government ignored the demands.

``There will be no negotiations, no consideration of any demands or ultimatums with the self-styled rebel commanders,″ said Saso Colakovski, Macedonia’s government spokesman. ``The government is determined to carry on without any compromise in a struggle to isolate these criminals.″

Still, a senior police official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said no immediate assault was planned out of concerns violence could escalate.

Representatives from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and other international observers accompanied ethnic Albanian lawmakers to the village to monitor talks.

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