Sarajevo (CNSNews.com) - Clashes between ethnic Albanian rebels and Macedonian security forces resumed Thursday in the hills above the northwestern Macedonian town of Tetovo, in an escalation of the guerilla warfare that has plagued the area for the past four weeks.
The rebels opened fire on police patrols near the town yesterday as well, injuring a dozen Macedonian police and several civilians and marking the first time clashes have occurred away from the country's border with Kosovo.
Local media reported that area villagers have been trapped by the crossfire. Macedonian officials confirmed that about 200 Tetovo residents have fled to Skopje because of fears that the fighting could come to the town.
"The situation is exceptionally serious," Interior Ministry spokesperson Stevo Pendarovski told reporters.
"This is a definite attempt to provoke Macedonia to accept war," Defense Minister Ljuben Paunovski told the MIA news agency Wednesday night. "We all know who is behind all this."
He said those responsible were elements "from abroad" who were using the alleged abuse of ethnic Albanians' civil rights to further their political agenda.
Paunovski was referring to the rebels' claims that Albanians, who make up about a quarter of Macedonia's population, are second-class citizens whose rights are ignored by the government.
The militants are understood to be fighting for the eventual annexation of Albanian majority areas in Macedonia as well as southern Serbia into Kosovo, which Kosovar nationalists hope will achieve independence from Belgrade.
The latest fighting was cheered on by several thousand ethnic Albanians in the center of Tetovo, who chanted "UCK" - the initials of the self-styled rebel National Liberation Army (UCK) - and cheered when they heard shots echoing off the hills.
An Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe official in Skopje said the townspeople's support of the firefight was "despicable" and only added to the serious troubles in Macedonia.
"Macedonia is not without its problems, but to artificially impose a division in a country like Macedonia, which is still in its infancy, is foolhardy and irresponsible," said OSCE's deputy head of mission Robin Seaword by telephone Thursday. Armed insurrection would disturb the gains made by the large Albanian minority in Macedonia, he added.
Albanians in Macedonia, unlike their counterparts in Kosovo under Yugoslav rule prior to the 1999 NATO bombings, are represented in the Macedonian government. The Democratic Party of Albanians is a partner in the ruling coalition.
Its leader, Arben Xhaferi, led 10,000 people in a peace march in Skopje Tuesday. He also appealed for a cease-fire after meeting with President Boris Trajkovski Wednesday night.
"[The DPA] have accepted the realities of the difficulties in changing a society overnight," Seaword said. He added that the rebel actions around Tetovo and the accompanying protest were "appalling."
The rebel activity is widely believed to have originated in Kosovo, where Albanian gunmen have been using the mountainous, hard-to-control border with Macedonia to smuggle in arms and men to their Macedonian counterparts.
A US-based think tank predicted this week that all Albanian militants in the region would continue their attacks, especially in light of this week's deployment of Yugoslav forces on the Macedonian border near Kosovo.
The lightly-armed Serbs and NATO-led peacekeepers (KFOR) will be sitting ducks for ambushes by the ethnic Albanian Liberation Army of Presevo, Medveda and Bujanovac (UCPMB), stated the Texas-based analysts, Stratfor.
"Despite calls by ethnic Albanian moderates, UCPMB field colonels are bracing for war," it said. "KFOR and Serb forces will be subject to regular hit-and-run attacks by UCPMB bands, and they will suffer numerous casualties through the spring."
The situation was reported calm as Yugoslav forces re-entered the zone Wednesday, accompanied by NATO helicopters. The troops, who were banned from the area in terms of a June 1999 agreement ending the Kosovo war, were invited back by NATO in a bid to end the arms smuggling into Macedonia.
In Kosovo itself, international peacekeepers in Mitrovica used tear gas and stun guns Wednesday to dispel about 50 Serbs protesting the arrest of four Serbs on weapons-possession charges. The protestors threw rocks and bottles and burned a U.N. vehicle. One soldier and 15 Serbs were injured.