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Center for Balkan

Tel: 978-461-0909
Fax: 978-461-2552
[email protected]



Albanian rebels , trained by the SAS are gaining ground in Macedonia, aiming for the key city of Tetovo

The emerging possibility of Kfor soldiers fighting the rebel army that Nato helped to "liberate" Kosovo less than two years ago has caused alarm in the alliance's headquarters in Brussels and in western capitals.

Paddy Ashdown, the former Liberal Democrat leader, said the Macedonian conflict "can lead us to the wider Balkan war that everyone has feared". He said Nato's troops in Kosovo were caught in a lawless power vacuum in which there was a "growing hostility towards the international community" dithering over the Serbian province's eventual status.

He noted a clear similarity with Northern Ireland, where he was among the first British troops in 1969. "I remember being welcomed by the Catholics with tea and sandwiches," Ashdown said. "It took about nine months to move from liberators to people who stood in the way of their solution."

Lord Owen, the former foreign secretary and veteran of Balkan conflicts, said the explosion of fighting in Macedonia was a "wake-up call" for the international community, and predicted a moment when Albanians "will turn on Nato forces".

He agreed with Kfor officers whose worst fear is facing a guerrilla insurgency against the peacekeepers in Kosovo. "My judgment is that we would not be ready or capable of facing that situation," Owen said.

NLA rebels took their fight to the streets of Tetovo yesterday. Semi-automatic and machinegun fire rattled out over the Muslim cemetery in the Tekke area as the Macedonian police and army continued to pound the hillsides around Kale with mortars and shells. Last night a Macedonian army helicopter crashed, killing the pilot and injuring 12 men, after hitting a pylon at a nearby ski resort.

Embarrassingly for Kfor, it emerged that two of the Kosovo-based commanders leading the Albanian push were trained by former British SAS and Parachute Regiment officers in the days when Nato was more comfortable with the fledgling Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

A former member of a European special forces unit who accompanied the KLA during the Kosovo conflict said that a commander with the nom de guerre of Bilal was organising the flow of arms and men into Macedonia, and that the veteran KLA commander Adem Bajrami was helping to co-ordinate the assault on Tetovo. Both were taught by British soldiers in the secretive training camps that operated above Bajram Curri in northern Albania during 1998 and 1999.

"The final irony of this is that Nato will be facing not only its own weapons but also its own tactics," said the special forces soldier. "And Nato simply can't handle a guerrilla war - the Albanians will beat them."

Even backed by howitzers placed in the football stadium by the Macedonian army, the special police were no match for the rebel group, said to number no more than 300 yesterday, and found themselves pinned down by shooting from Kale and from three subordinate positions in a bewildering combination of crossfire.

The NLA had also established three [Image] separate mortar positions in an arc about seven miles from Tetovo. "I believe they learnt all this from the SAS," said the soldier.

Meanwhile, Macedonian and Serbian populations began to form militias to stop the rebels from overrunning the city.

"We need just three hours, but we need more guns," said "Nasko", who was at the head of a ragtag group of portly figures in tracksuits in the cobbled streets of Dva Bresta, the most radical Macedonian district. They screamed abuse at western television reporters, kicked a CNN cameraman and almost lynched a Greek photographer who tried to take a picture of an armoured personnel carrier.

"This is a religious war against Christians led by the mujaheddin," raged Nasko, claiming the rebels were encouraged by mercenaries from Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. A bystander pointed out that Nasko was himself a Muslim from Serbia's Sanzak region.

As the muezzin's cry from a minaret was drowned out by mortar fire, the backstreets of Tetovo became corridors of ancient hatreds in which it was impossible to discern who was firing at whom.

Armoured cars carrying American observers gingerly made their way around deserted boulevards, but they, too, left with the Germans. "This has caught us off-guard," said one American official in the region. "It's the first test of Colin Powell's foreign policy, and I don't know that he's got an answer."

British officers are known to favour a clampdown on the Albanian rebels currently respecting a tenuous ceasefire in Serbia's Presevo valley. But whether Britain will be drawn into protecting Kfor's supply lines in Macedonia is unclear.

"The UK is not prepared to support Albanian extremism and we are liaising closely with the Macedonian authorities," said Major Fergus Smith, the British forces spokesman. Another officer spoke privately of "suddenly being faced by Europe's Ulster".

[Line] Copyright 2001 Times Newspapers Ltd. This service [Image] [Up] is provided on Times Newspapers' standard terms [Image] and conditions. To inquire about a licence to reproduce material from The Sunday Times, visit the Syndication website.