Christian Jennings: Policemen's deaths raise new spectre in Macedonia

The killing of three policemen raised a new threat to Macedonia's fragile peace-process yesterday. Ethnic Albanian guerrillas also abducted up to 100 Macedonian civilians in the most serious security incident since political parties joined the peace process in August. Rebel fighters attacked a Macedonian special forces police checkpoint outside the western town of Tetovo late on Sunday. Two men died immediately in a fusillade of anti-tank rockets and grenades, and four others were wounded.

Another officer from a new interior ministry special forces police unit known as "the Tigers", which receives training assistance from the British army, died of his wounds later that night. "We were ambushed and we suffered great damage," a senior Macedonian officer said.

Armed Albanian fighters then took some 60 Macedonian civilians hostage in the village of Semsevo, and another 40 people from villages around Tetovo.

Shooting broke out in villages around Tetovo, and the main highway linking the capital to the west of the country also came under fire. By late yesterday all the hostages had been released, the parliamentary speaker, Stojan Andov, said. Hundreds of police using armoured personnel carriers and jeeps fanned out on the outskirts of the villages.

The abductions came in reprisal for the arrest by Macedonian police units on Sunday of seven armed Albanian guerrillas, who drove into a police checkpoint.

Special forces officers from the Tigers unit had formed a cordon around a patch of nearby land thought to contain the graves of up to 12 Macedonians, allegedly abducted and killed by Albanian guerrillas during the fighting that swept Macedonia this summer.

The interior minister, Ljube Boshkovski, said the men were arrested for "ethnic cleansing" as well as for participation in the attack on a police station.

An exhumation of the grave site would go ahead this week, the Macedonian interior ministry said.

Earlier this year the Albanian National Liberation Army agreed to disband in return for greater political recognition for the country's 600,000-strong Albanian minority.

In September it handed over more than 3,000 weapons to NATO troops, but international officials fear that the rebels gave up fewer than 20 per cent of their weapons.

Macedonia's parliament has dragged its feet for weeks over approving proposed changes to the country's constitution in favour of the Albanians.

"We're doing all we can to calm the situation and get the peace process back on track," a European Union diplomat said. A vote on constitutional changes, which needs the grudging support of Macedonia's two largest Slav parties for a required 66 per cent majority, was due to take place yesterday but was postponed because of the fresh violence.

Macedonian police forces, troops and paramilitary units fought a low-level counter insurgency campaign for eight months this year against the Albanian insurgents of the NLA. Up to 100,000 Albanians and Macedonians were displaced or forced to become refugees in neighbouring Kosovo, and dozens of troops and civilians lost their lives.

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