By R. Jeffrey Smith
Post Foreign Service
March 30, 2001; Page A01
VITINA, Yugoslavia -- The half-dozen men who met
secretly in this small town in Kosovo province in December
1999 had a rebellion to plot. Guerrillas had helped expel the
Yugoslav army from Kosovo just six months earlier; now, the
men were refining their plan for a similar insurrection in
Macedonia, visible just across the border from here.
All the men at the meeting were ethnic Albanians, like most of
Kosovo's residents. But people familiar with the gathering say
the key participants were also citizens of Macedonia, a nation
with a Slav-dominated government that they viewed as
oppressing their ethnic group.
Some, such as Ali Ahmeti, had served time in a notorious
Macedonian prison. Others had organized a clandestine
logistics and supply network in Macedonia that fueled the
Kosovo fighting. Now they talked about how to repeat what they
had done inside the Yugoslav province: form a guerrillaarmy.
Yesterday, as the sound of mortar fire echoed across the
Kosovo-Macedonian border, the fruits of their secret efforts
were clear. For the past month, Macedonian police and soldiers
have been battling a new Albanian force calling itself the
National Liberation Army of Macedonia, which Western and local
analysts say has had as many as 1,500 members.
The clashes pose the possibility of yet another full-scale
ethnic war in the Balkans, where the United States and its
allies maintain peacekeeping forces and until last month had
been hoping that lasting calm had finally set in.
Although Macedonian forces last week were able to push the
rebels out of villages near the western city of Tetovo,
Western officials say the rebels suffered few casualties and
are still able to fight. "They are not defeated,"
said a NATO official privy to intelligence about the group.
This latest Balkans struggle is born from a basic fact of the
region's history and geography: Boundaries of countries rarely
coincide with the boundaries of ethnic groups. Unlike Serbian
and Croatian efforts in the 1990s to form unified states, the
Albanian guerrillas say they want no redrawing of borders.
Their professed goal is autonomy and an end to what they call
systematic discrimination in such things as jobs and the use
own language in Macedonia. The government says that the
Albanian minority has full political rights and that the
allegations are invalid.
But so far the consequence of the conflict they have started
has been to further divide the nation's Slav majority from its
ethnic Albanian minority.
More than 30,000 people from both groups have been driven from
their homes, and some villages near the front lines have been
destroyed by artillery. Moreover, the fighting has changed how
officials in Europe and the United States view ethnic
Albanians in Kosovo. During the war there, they were seen as
victims of repression; now Western officials say they worry
that they have become dangerous exporters of extremist
"Many of the [army's] members are ex-political
prisoners," said one of the force's organizers, Fazli
Veliu, explaining their zeal. "These are people dealing
with their motherland issue, with national aspirations."
Ahmeti, the political leader of the National Liberation Army,
is typical of the small band of Albanian nationalists feeding
this fire. He grew up in a village near the southern Macedonia
city of Kicevo. The population there is evenly mixed between
Slavs and Albanians, people say, but intermarriage is
virtually nonexistent, and the presence of a large Macedonian
army base has done little to diminish ethnic unrest.
Ahmeti became involved in politics while studying education at
the University of Pristina in Kosovo when Kosovo and Macedonia
were both part of Communist Yugoslavia. Along with thousands
of other students there, he took part in a 1981 street protest
against Yugoslav rule that prompted a brutal government
Quickly convicted by a government court, he served time in
Idrizovo prison, a dumping ground for dissidents who
challenged communist ideas of a socially unified nation.
Conditions in the cellblocks were horrendous; Ahmeti was held
in solitary confinement for six months at the age of 20. After
his release in 1982, Ahmeti continued to attract police
attention and he fled to Switzerland.
The nationalist movement was then simmering among the Albanian
diaspora. Three ethnic Albanian political leaders were
assassinated in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1982, allegedly by
Yugoslav security agents; one month later, the National
Movement of Kosova was created at a secret meeting in Turkey.
The group, generally known by its Albanian initials LPK,
initially sought to pressure Yugoslavia into elevating Kosovo
from a province to a full Yugoslav republic. But after
Slobodan Milosevic became the nation's leader and Yugoslavia's
disintegration began, the group demanded the province's
This was, the group said in a manifesto published in 1993, a
first step toward the unification of all "occupied"
territory in Macedonia and the Yugoslav republics of Serbia
and Montenegro where ethnic Albanians predominated -- the
creation of a Greater Kosovo. It specifically listed armed
resistance as one of its methods.
Ahmeti later returned to Yugoslavia and organized
demonstrations with other nationalists in Kosovo. According to
senior LPK members, in 1993 he and another Albanian activist,
Emrush Xhemajli, gained their group's formal blessing at
another secret meeting to create the Kosovo Liberation Army.
By 1997, Ahmeti was spending much of his time in Tirana,
Albania, helping organize groups of guerrillas who crossed the
border into Kosovo to attack police. The organizing efforts
were assisted by Ahmeti's uncle, Fazli
a former high school teacher from Macedonia who also had fled
In 1999, NATO intervened in the KLA's war against Yugoslav
forces, bombing Yugoslavia for 78 days to force its army to
withdraw from the province. Shortly after NATO peacekeeping
troops entered Kosovo in June 1999, the KLA agreed to
But Veliu, Xhemajli and Ahmeti -- all of whom were born in
Macedonia -- refused to fold the LPK or to embrace open
politics. They instead continued to meet clandestinely as the
LPK's executive council, according to their friends and former
In a series of telephone interviews, Veliu confirmed that the
key decision to form the National Liberation Army of Macedonia
was made by this council. He also said that meetings to
discuss the idea were held inside Macedonia in the fall of
1999 and in Vitina, Kosovo, in December of that year.
By February 2000, the organizing activities of Veliu, who was
then operating in Germany, had come to the attention of the
Macedonian police; they asked authorities in Germany to detain
him. After he was taken into custody there, a group called the
Association of Political Prisoners in Tetovo produced a
petition signed by 10,000 people calling for his release.
The Macedonian justice minister, an ethnic Albanian,
subsequently failed to submit the proper extradition papers to
German authorities, and so Veliu was released after 45 days.
The minister was then dismissed by the Slav-dominated
When the KLA was formed in 1994, its leaders viewed the
Albanian parts of Macedonia as a natural place for guerrilla
operations, according to several former leaders of the group.
On their maps, it was marked Zone 2.
But as the fight with Yugoslav forces escalated, Western
diplomatic pressure helped persuade the KLA not to start a war
in Macedonia, the former leaders said. Instead, the country
served as a key conduit for arms shipments from Albania and
Greece to KLA fighters in Kosovo. Arms caches were deposited
in or around dozens of remote villages in Macedonia and moved
by mule across the Karadak and Sar Mountains into Kosovo.
After the Kosovo war, members of the Macedonian guerrilla army
began to draw on these stocks as they trained at a site in
southern Macedonia, near Lake Ohrid, according to NATO
officials. Some members also trained in Bajram Curri, a
village in northern Albania, one NATO official said.
In the latter half of 2000, as the LPK leaders started
establishing small guerrilla cells, they dispatched 30 or so
men to establish an arms depot in the village near Tanuscevci,
a remote site that straddles the Yugoslav-Macedonian border
and served as a smuggling point before and after the Kosovo
The guerrillas had ready support in the Kosovo town of Vitina,
roughly 15 miles away. "There is no Albanian here that
wouldn't like Macedonian Albanians to have better
rights," said Vitina City Council President Samet Dalipi.
"Some helped in one form; somebody else helped in
another. I know that there are people going [to Macedonia]
The guerrillas' plan was to train for attacks against
Macedonian forces beginning later this year, perhaps in the
summer, according to several people close to the group. But in
mid-February, that schedule suddenly began to unravel. A
Macedonian television reporter was tipped to the presence of
fighters in black uniforms in Tanuscevci, and when she went
there to investigate, they took her gear and detained her
briefly, a move that ensured the story attracted enormous
attention in Skopje, the capital.
Macedonian police arrived soon afterward and a firefight
ensued. Residents of nearby villages on the Kosovo side of the
border began to flee. Then, in early March, U.S. Army soldiers
and a U.S. Special Forces unit in Kosovo forced the fighters
from the village, shooting and wounding one guerrilla who
refused to lay down his weapon.
The confrontation enraged the guerrillas, who were forced to
leave their arms cache behind, and prompted a debate within
the ranks about how to react. Some leaders wanted to wait
until the force was better organized and trained before
beginning any additional attack. But those who favored opening
up a new front above the city of Tetovo right away in other
villages carried the day.
"I contacted Ahmeti and tried to persuade him to give up
the fight," said one ethnic Albanian in Kosovo. "He
said he could not stop the people, and that Macedonian
authorities had been brutal."
Some weapons the guerrillas have used in recent fighting
appear to have come from old KLA caches in Kosovo that NATO
peacekeepers have not confiscated. Last week, German troops in
Kosovo intercepted a mule train ferrying weapons from Kosovo
to Macedonia. Others were purchased. "It's not difficult
to get weapons in the Balkans," said former KLA commander
Ramush Haradinaj. "You just need money."
Touched by the scenes of fighting in the past weeks, some
members of the ethnic Albanian diaspora have established an
international fund – called the Voice of Freedom -- for
donations meant to fuel the war.
Nonetheless, many Albanians say their deep patriotism is
misunderstood, and that today they have no political goal
besides better treatment for Albanians within existing
countries and the right to move freely among them.
The overwhelming majority of ethnic Albanians in Macedonia and
Kosovo have no desire to merge politically with backward
Albania, many Albanians say. The LPK has only 4,000 declared
supporters among Kosovo's 2 million residents, and it won only
1 percent of the vote in municipal elections last year.
Xhemajli and others close to the guerrillas say it is only
their methods that separate them from moderate Albanians and
that their goals are the same. "We are for a
dialogue," Veliu said. The rebels used violence only
because "we were faced to the wall. The political process
But Arben Xhaferi, head of the largest Albanian political
party in Macedonia, which is part of a ruling coalition and
has fought for change, said the current violence is only a
"metaphor for stupidity." It has been fueled by
psychologically damaged "Rambos in Albanian society"
whose solution to their frustrations is to pick up a gun, he
© 2001 The Washington Post Company