- Title: MACEDONIA: Ethnic Albanian rebels claim they have armed following in Macedonia
- Date: 14th June 2010
- Summary: SHAQIRI SPEAKING WITH VILLAGERS
- Embargoed: 29th June 2010 13:00
- Topics: International Relations
- Reuters ID: LVA2QH5TUWPGEL20S8QW3XZLTMNC
- Story Text: Ethnic Albanian separatist Xhezair Shaqiri carries a pistol and travels the mountains of Macedonia with an aide armed with an AK-47 rifle.
The authorities, who want him for kidnapping, said he and his kind are smugglers who pose no security threat.
But some diplomats said there are several hundred like him and that Macedonia, whose path towards the European Union (EU) is stalled by a long-running dispute with Greece over its name, dismisses them at its peril.
Ethnic tensions over regional autonomy, political representation and Albanian-language schooling brought the country to the brink of war in 2001, when Albanians started an insurgency. NATO and the EU brokered the Ohrid Accord giving Albanians greater rights.
But today many of the ethnic Albanians, who make up almost a third of the two million population, accuse Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski of holding Macedonia back by failing to solve a dispute with Greece over the country's name.
To many in the ethnic Macedonian majority, the name matters a great deal. But ethnic Albanians would have little problem with compromises suggested by international mediators such as "Northern Macedonia".
"Albanians don't want to destabilise Macedonia, although we as Albanians have taken arms in our hands -- we want to protect ourselves and our identity," said Shaqiri, a former member of parliament who goes by the name Hoxha and says he has a number of rebels under his command.
"Some people from the international community tell us the Ohrid agreement is not dead yet, but when we see the facts, that it should have been fulfilled by 2004, we don't see any accomplishments now in 2010. We will surrender our weapons when we see the law and the state are functioning and the law is equal for everyone," he told Reuters in an interview.
Shaqiri and the men he calls his soldiers took control of the remote mountain village of Tanusevci, home to about 40 families near the border with Kosovo, nearly three years ago. Macedonian police do not patrol the area.
He agreed to speak after Reuters contacted villagers, and arrived in a white jeep bearing Kosovo licence plates.
Most villagers are unemployed. Some farm or commute to jobs in the capital, Skopje, others smuggle. All pin their hopes of a better life on future EU membership.
In late April, Macedonian police discovered a large weapons cache including mortar shells in the mountainous ethnic Albanian region near the border with Kosovo.
Days later, police killed four ethnic Albanian gunmen in a shootout and found another cache. Police said they were arms smugglers, but added they were wearing black uniforms with emblems of the former ethnic Albanian guerrilla army.
The incident increased western fears of a repetition of the 2001 conflict. EU and US diplomats last month warned local politicians to improve inter-ethnic relations and find a compromise with Greece.
"This is like you have a train with two locomotives pulling the wagons at the same time in opposite directions, destroying the tracks and wagons," ethnic Albanian writer and analyst Kim Mehmeti said.
Mehmeti also said the Ohrid Accord is now worthless.
"This agreement has lost its meaning, because it became something that is used by Macedonians when they need to prove they have done something and Albanian political parties use this only when it comes to election campaigns."
Greece blocked Macedonia's bid to join NATO in 2008, saying its name implied territorial claims to Greece's own northern province of the same name. The same issue has blocked Macedonia's EU progress.
Estimates vary widely on how many Albanians are armed.
One western ambassador, citing military intelligence, put the number at 400, but a European diplomat said the numbers were much higher. Yet others said even if there are many weapons about, not all their owners are rebels.
After the 2001 peace deal granting ethnic Albanians more rights, many commanders laid down their weapons and donned suits to enter politics, including Ali Ahmeti.
"If there is no solution for the problems that we face, there might be some moments that no one predicted," said Ahmeti, whose Democratic Union for Integration (DUI) party is a junior partner in the coalition led by the conservative Gruevski.
He said any problems in Macedonia should be resolved in talks, and urged Shaqiri and others to put down their guns.
"There will always be unhappy people but the only way to resolve problems in the beginning of the 21st century is not with violence or creating military units," Ahmeti said.
He said the government was trying hard to solve the name row with Greece, indicating there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
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