Athens (CNSNews.com) - Ethnic Albanians from Albania and Kosovo are involved in attempts to infiltrate and destabilize the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), according to press reports from Skopje, the capital of the small Balkan country.
Should the situation get out of hand, observers fear, it could lead to yet another open conflict in the powderkeg region still trying to recover from last year's Kosovo flare-up.
A Greek member of the European Parliament, Yiannis Souladakis, told reporters here that the groups involved originated from Kosovo and were linked to the Kosovo Liberation Army.
The KLA was ostensibly disbanded last September and reconstituted as the NATO-approved, purely civilian Kosovo Protection Corps.
Souladakis said the infiltrators were "involved in drug-trafficking, illegal arms and women trade, while lately...attempting to acquire a political character."
Souladakis appealed for stability, peace and security to be safeguarded in FYROM.
Given the fact that administrative bodies in Kosovo were responsible for their actions to the European Union, Souladakis called for EU bodies to state the steps they intend to take to stop the destabilization attempts.
FYROM, a poor landlocked country about the size of Vermont and with a population of just over two million, gained its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 after the republic's break-up. One-fourth of its population is Albanian with virtually the rest made up of native Yugoslavs. It borders Greece, Kosovo, Albania and Bulgaria.
FYROM was admitted to the UN in 1993 under its current, provisional name because of a dispute with Greece over the name Macedonia.
The Greek newspaper Kathimerini reported last week that the 40-mile border between FYROM and Kosovo is riddled by smugglers who are tied to armed gangs fomenting rebellion among FYROM's ethnic Albanians.
The newspaper said ethnic Albanians from both sides crisscross the border with large quantities of cigarettes, alcohol, guns and - frequently - women whom they force into prostitution.
"The smugglers move without any hindrance, because on the side of Kosovo patrolled by the NATO-led KFOR, which is responsible for border security, they appear to see this duty as a chore while the Albanians of FYROM, who live in the border area, have enforced a de facto abolition of the border," the report said.
Skopje newspapers have highlighted an alleged connection between organized smuggling rings and the political leadership of the ethnic Albanians of western FYROM, centered in the city of Tetovo.
The repeated attacks on police targets in ethnic Albanian regions, culminating in the shooting of two border guards at Blace earlier this month, are attributed to the activities of Albanians who, beyond smuggling, are forming the nucleus of an armed movement in FYROM.
The reports say armed groups are forming under the leadership of extremists from the KLA. No proof has been provided, according to the press reports, but the rumors are fuelled by reports by the FYROM secret service and statements by government officials who say such groups exist and are tied to the military-political leadership of Kosovo.
Because of the number of incidents on the border, FYROM's chief of general staff, Jovan Andrevski, has given orders for more soldiers and equipment to be deployed there.
In a recent interview with Kathimerini, FYROM Defense Minister Nikola Klusev said the dangers for his country come from Kosovo or the borders with Albania.
"We cannot guarantee absolute border control, despite the fact that we have soldiers and mercenaries there. We need more control in the area, and we have discussed this with NATO as well as with the prime minister of Albania," he said.
Klusev said military assistance now being received from the United States, Britain, Germany, France and Greece was important, but the needs were great.
"During the Kosovo conflict, we did not take a penny from NATO. On the contrary, we had some soft replies in words that did not correspond to our needs. The economic aid we received recently from NATO is too little to pay even for construction of barracks or basic expenses such as water, telephone and electricity bills, let along military exercises," Klusev said.
Meanwhile, FYROM and Greek officials at the United Nations have met in New York to further explore the question of the country's official name.
The Skopje government wants the name Republic of Macedonia while the Greek side would want to secure the addition of the country's capital as part of its official name, Republic of Macedonia-Skopje.
Greece feels that use of the name Macedonia touches on its \plain\lang1033\f2\fs23\cf0 territorial rights as there is a region called Macedonia in northern Greece.
Any change to the provisional name will require a decision by the UN Security Council followed by ratification by the General Assembly.
Meanwhile, the Greek government has joined the US in denying a New York Times report that said Greece was involved in efforts to negotiate the resignation of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic coupled to guarantees for his personal safety and that of his family.
Acting spokesman Tilemachos Hitiris said a recent trip by former foreign minister Karolos Papoulias to Belgrade was not related to the alleged scenario outlined in the Times report.
US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher earlier this week also denied the report, stressing that the Clinton administration's policy remained that Milosevic must go to The Hague to stand trial for alleged war crimes.