AFP, April 12, 2001
Powell to visit Macedonia in bid to defuse crisis
SKOPJE, Aoril 12 (AFP) -
US Secretary of State Colin Powell flies into Macedonia Thursday hoping to persuade ethnic leaders to defuse a crisis that has flared into open warfare between Macedonian forces and Albanian gunmen.
The Macedonian leaders , who received Western support in February and March for their fight against ethnic Albanian guerrillas, are hoping the international community will become more engaged in the struggle to stabilise the country.
Te leader of the main ethnic Albanian party in trouble-hit Macedonia will also ask Washington to play a greater role in the country when he meets Powell here Thursday.
Arben Xhaferi, leader of the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA), told AFP by phone Wednesday that it was in the United States' interests to help defuse the ethnic tension which has spilled into violence.
"I will ask the US to be more involved in the case of Macedonia, which is a kind of geo-strategic pillar in the heart of the Balkans, connected to Albania, Greece, Bulgaria, Kosovo and Serbia. Any conflict here can provoke a much larger conflict," he said.
Xhaferi denounced efforts by the Macedonian Slav majority to make good on promises to discuss Albanian grievances, saying government negotiators were only ready to discuss "marginal issues".
He said he would also ask Powell, starting his first official Balkans tour, to push for proportional representation of ethnic Albanians, "who are deeply marginalised in society."
The US Secretary of State's visit comes at a "particularly important time" for Macedonia and the Balkans, said Macedonian Foreign Minister Srdjan Kerim Wednesday.
He called on the European Union and NATO to "actively engage in the region to tackle the instability resulting from the "Balkans virus" which he said fostered the setting up of borders drawn along ethnic lines.
Encouraged by the international community to make progress in the political dialogue, as a means to reconcile the majority Macedonian Slav community with the minority Albanian population, the Skopje authorities regular claim that such dialogue has "intensified".
However the Albanian demand for changes to the constitution have met with a stony reaction from Skopje, which sees such a move as a step toward the break-up of the multi-ethnic state.
Kerim spoke of less contentious issues Wednesday, saying that one of the main goals was to have an ethnically mixed university up and running by October in Tetovo, a northwestern town inhabited predominantly by Albanians which was the scene of heavy clashes in March.
The town has had an Albanian-language based university since 1994, the only one in the country, but it has never been recognised by the government.
Many meatier demands, such as better representation of Albanians in the administration and the police, the decentralisation of power and the creation of an Albanian-language television channel, have been sticking points for several years.
But the Albanians' main push is for a change to the preamble of the constitution, which calls the former Yugoslav republic a country of the Macedonians and lists Albanians as a minority along with Turks, Roma gypsies and other groups including ethnic Serbs and Bulgarians.
Macedonians fear that a change to the constitution would allow a federalisation of the small Balkan country and open the door to attempts to split the country apart along ethnic lines, dragging it into yet another Balkans civil war.
Skopje says that ethnic Albanians make up around a quarter of the population, while the Albanians say they constitute at least a third of the country's two million people.
Macedonia is a member of NATO's Partnership for Peace programme, a halfway-house for former communist countries seeking full membership of the alliance.
Last month Skopje ordered in the army to deal with the ethnic Albanian guerrillas who had fought special police to a standstill on the edge of the northwestern town of Tetovo.
The army then swept through rebel bases in villages along the northern border with Kosovo, routing the gunmen and claiming to have stamped out the insurrection at the end of March.