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A Macedonian policeman died in a clash with ethnic Albanian guerrillas near Tetovo today just hours after European Union peace mediator Francois Leotard announced that ethnic Albanians and Macedonia’s majority parties had initialed a peace deal. Moreover, the latest incident came just a day after a bloody clash where ethnic Albanian rebels loyal to the National Liberation Army ambushed a convoy of Macedonians outside Skopje, killing 10 soldiers.
NATO, with 3,500 troops ready to enter Macedonia expressly to disarm Albanian militants, is urging both sides to sign the formal, but non-binding, peace agreement in a meeting reportedly scheduled for Monday. But recent violence and regular interruptions of the peace process, ongoing in the Macedonian city of Ohrid, suggest the agreement, now in doubt, would do little to prevent an imminent civil war. The question is whether the conflict will be brief or protracted.
NATO’s presence in Macedonia, if it comes, won’t be able to deter ethnic violence. Its plan for disarming ethnic Albanians cannot ensure peace because NATO cannot adequately confiscate weapons belonging to various factions of the National Liberation Army in the 30-day mission it has outlined.
Other NATO-led missions intended to disarm ethnic Albanian militants in Kosovo and Serbia have not deterred fighters from rearming. KFOR disarmed thousands of ethnic Albanians as part of a surrender of the Kosovo Liberation Army in September 1999. But the KLA rearmed, with U.N. consent, under the Kosovo Protection Corps. KFOR recently detained and disarmed hundreds of soldiers loyal to insurgents in Serbia’s Presevo Valley, only to clear them of any human rights abuses and send them back to base camp, where they later established the Albanian National Army. Even if NATO could disarm rebels in Macedonia, re-supplies would promptly return into northern Macedonia.
NATO is pressing Macedonia’s government to give in to the demands of Albanian militants while preparing to move alliance troops into the region. NATO’s entry into Macedonia will be a victory for the militants. By luring NATO in as an unwitting ally, Albanian guerrillas will achieve by peaceful means what they were unable to do through military action. Dissent within Macedonia’s army, opposition groups and the general population will likely topple the current pro-Western government.
On June 25, NATO and U.S. troops escorted 500 Albanian rebels, with all their weapons, from a village under attack by the Macedonian army to a rebel-held village to the north, Agence France-Presse reported. The event sparked a massive violent protest in Skopje, where 6,000 Macedonian Slavs, including army and police reservists, stormed the Parliament and chased away President Boris Trajkovski.
NATO’s mission to disarm the NLA will not rid the country or the region of Albanian militants. There are about 5,000 soldiers serving under the KPC, many of whom operate in official and unofficial capacities as gunrunners in the Balkans, according to the Sunday London Times.
For Macedonian forces the challenge will be to engage in defensive and offensive campaigns simultaneously, something they are ill-equipped to do. The NLA uses a hit-and-run strategy that will exhaust Macedonia’s army and allow the rebels to overtake a number of towns, creating a situation that ensures a protracted civil war.
What NATO and Macedonian forces will face is essentially the best guerrilla combat in the Balkans. The group comprises combat veterans with field experience in Serbia, Kosovo and Chechnya. Unit commanders who trained with U.S. Special Forces run combat drills in Albania, Kosovo and Macedonia and recruit heavily from the KPC.
The Albanians’ strengths in Macedonia are their mobility, reserve forces and weapons supplies. NLA units move about 250 soldiers at a time and fan out across a series of villages around strategic towns. The rebels’ key staging areas are along the Tetovo-Jacince highway and the Tetovo-Skopje highway. As of yesterday, the NLA was shifting forces between dozens of villages along these two corridors.
The makeup of the region plays directly into the hands of the NLA. The small, predominantly ethnic Albanian villages surrounding Tetovo and Kumanovo number in the hundreds and in many cases have limited road access. The villages can easily be occupied and abandoned, one by one. This accounts for the rebels’ rapid movement from town to town throughout the latest cease-fire period.
NLA reserve forces can be deployed quickly. Recruits are trained within miles of the front lines. The Skopje daily Dnevnik reports there are a series of NLA training camps in neighboring Albania and Kosovo. These camps form a crescent outside the northwestern border of Macedonia, from Kumanovo down to Debar, no more than 20 miles from the fighting.
The adjoining area of Macedonia has the highest density of ethnic Albanians in the country. There are about 4,000 ethnic Albanian fighters there, including KPC reservists and members of the Albanian National Army.
NLA rebels carry light, sophisticated weapons useful for rapid attack and urban combat. The Ministry of Information in Macedonia reports that captured soldiers are equipped with Kalishnikovs and 5.54 caliber rifles modified for maximum stopping power.
Rebels also have Russian Sam-7 missiles and U.S.-made Stingers, according to reports in the London’s Sunday Times. Independent media reports also claim rebels possess third-generation night-vision goggles supplied by U.S. advisers.
Macedonian forces superior in number but tactically weak
The Macedonian army, though numerically superior with 18,000 troops and nearly 100,000 in reserve forces and paramilitaries, lacks conventional artillery, and its defensive armor consists primarily of Soviet T-55 battle tanks, according to Defense and Foreign Affairs Strategic Policy.
Moreover, Macedonia’s offensive weapons are few. Ukraine had supplied ground-assault vehicles but recently stopped to comply with a U.S. request. Macedonia’s equipment from Ukraine includes two Mi-25 helicopters, four Mi-24 helicopters and four Su-25 attack planes, according to reports from ITAR-TASS.
These aircraft form the core of Macedonia’s assault capability, which has held off rebel advances from inside the Serbian border although Macedonia’s limited air assault remains vulnerable to rebel missiles.
Finding Macedonia’s defensive and offensive capabilities as meager, the highly mobile ethnic Albanians will exhaust Macedonia’s resources largely by distributing fighters throughout the western and northern regions.
Rebel strategy will keep Macedonia’s army on the run
The NLA will not focus on holding towns so much as keeping them under psychological influence. The rebels do not want villagers to flee lest they lose their protective shields.
Such a strategy will force Macedonia’s army to secure towns through occupation. Ethnic Albanian militants will play cat-mouse throughout northwestern Macedonia, necessitating hundreds of permanent stations for army mop-up operations.
The NLA will also fight the war on psychological terms so ethnic Albanians turn against the Macedonian population. Forcing Macedonian soldiers to occupy ethnic Albanian towns will make them appear the aggressors and ethnic Albanians the victims.
Clearly, the NLA strategy for war in Macedonia will be catastrophic unless the ethnic Albanians can be contained at current positions. But containment requires genuine assistance from NATO to stop the flow of arms and recruits to the NLA.
Macedonia’s forces are primarily suited to chasing the militants, and ethnic Albanians will certainly string them along to maximize the spread of the war. Unless NATO and Macedonian forces can find a way to cordon off Tetovo and Kumanovo within weeks, rebel forces will spark a protracted civil war.