June 11, 2010 / 11:30 AM / 9 years ago

EXCLUSIVE-Impatient, some Albanians arm in Macedonia

* Ethnic Albanian rebels claim armed following in Macedonia

* Rebel leader blames PM for continued dispute with Greece

* Some Western sources say 400 or more gunmen in hills

* Government speaks of smugglers, sees no security threat



By Fatos Bytyci and Kole Casule

TANUSEVCI, Macedonia, June 11 (Reuters) - 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, say he and his kind are smugglers who pose no security threat.

But some diplomats say there are several hundred like him and that Macedonia, whose path towards the European Union is stalled by a long-running dispute with Greece over its name, dismisses them at its peril.

"It is true that there are hundreds," said Shaqiri, a former member of parliament who goes by the name Hoxha and says he has a number of rebels under his command.

"I have enough soldiers to fight the Macedonian forces," he told Reuters in an interview.

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 2 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".

"We are interested in joining NATO and the EU but it seems that the Macedonian prime minister is not interested," said Hoxha, who served in the national parliament from 2002-06.

"So the ambassadors of the international community are here only to justify their fat salaries."

A senior Western diplomat said: "We are far from a replay of the 2001 conflict, but Albanians are getting impatient.

"If the country stays off course, still far from the EU and NATO, the impatience might become frustration. Frustrated people react dangerously and we have enough guns in this region to cause disaster. But we are still far from it."



WEAPONS ABOUND

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 U.S. diplomats last month warned local politicians to improve inter-ethnic relations and find a compromise with Greece.

"It’s like a train with two locomotives pulling the wagons at the same time in opposite directions," ethnic Albanian writer Kim Mehmeti said. "The Ohrid agreement today is worthless."

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. A European diplomat said the numbers were much higher. Yet others say that, even if there are many weapons about, not all their owners are rebels.

"What we see there is only smugglers transporting goods," said a NATO official in Pristina, capital of neighbouring Kosovo, whose people are mostly ethnic Albanian.



THE REBEL COMMANDER

Hoxha 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.

"Recently we have more Albanian villages organising self defence here in Macedonia," said Hoxha, who wore civilian clothes. "We will hand over these weapons when we see that the situation in this country is on the right track."

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.

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 DUI party is a junior partner in the coalition led by the conservative Gruevski.

He said the government was trying hard to solve the name row: "Now there is light at the end of the tunnel."

He said any problems in Macedonia should be resolved in talks, and urged Hoxha 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.

Ivo Kotevski, a Macedonian Interior Ministry spokesman, added: "Police have control over the entire territory of the country. We have no serious indications of any threat or danger for the security situation." (Writing by Adam Tanner, editing by Paul Taylor and Kevin Liffey)

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