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The Independent - Albanian rebels take their battle on to the streets


Albanian rebels take their battle on to the streets

By Justin Huggler in Tetovo

16 March 2001

The battle raged all afternoon in the hills over Macedonia's second largest
city yesterday. Hunched up behind the low, crumbling whitewashed walls of
their homes, the people peered up as smoke poured from the hillside less
than a mile away, and winced as great explosions shook the earth.

On one street, Macedonian government snipers angrily waved reporters away,
their guns trained on the hills where Albanian guerrillas were firing down
into the city. Round a corner was a small, muddy stain on the ground: the
blood of the first man to die.

The body of Sulejman Ramadani lay stretched out on the floor of his family
home, the black and red Albanian flag draped over his corpse and a small
dark bullet-hole in his forehead. Around him, the women of the family sat
and wept.

He died outside the front door on Wednesday as he tried to get into his car.

Outside, everybody was talking of war. On one street, a group of
Macedonians sheltered behind some houses. There was the crack of an
Albanian sniper from the hills, then a big Macedonian machine-gun started
up in reply.

"We're waiting for guns," said Vladimir, a tall, young Macedonian. "I want
the government to give me a gun so I can go up into the mountains and
fight." A few blocks away stood a group of Albanians. "We're ready to take
up arms," said Naser, a 21-year-old student. "We're waiting for orders."

In the morning, the city had a surreal air as people went about their daily
business while the firing rang out. But as the battle started in earnest,
the city began to empty. By late afternoon, all the shops were closed and
the streets were deserted. Many Macedonians were said to be fleeing.

The fighting came suddenly on Wednesday, as the guerrillas of the National
Liberation Army brought their rebellion here from the hills on the border
with Kosovo.

The K-For international force claimed to be successfully patrolling the
border, but the Macedonian government said that two-thirds of the rebels
fighting in the area had crossed from neighbouring Kosovo.

There were other clashes around Macedonia yesterday, and the fighting was
reported to have spread to a village just 12 miles from the capital,
Skopje. Two ethnic Albanians were wounded in yesterday's fighting,
according to state radio.

"I am still in shock," said Munim, a young Albanian in Tetovo, his face
white as the funeral procession for Sulejman Ramadani wound its way through
the nervous streets.

Gunfire and huge explosions cut through the Islamic funeral prayers. There
were many versions of how Mr Ramadani died. Albanians said he was shot by a
Macedonian sniper, or retreating police. Macedonians said he was killed by
a stray bullet from the guerrillas.

"Some people are happy the rebels have come, but some aren't," said Munim.
"I hope the rebels do not come down out of the hills." But if there is a
war, he says he too will fight. Why? "I have to fight for my people."

All the Albanians deny the rebels want to break Macedonia up and add
Albanian areas to a "greater Kosovo", as is widely feared. Ethnic Albanians
account for at least a quarter of Macedonia's two million people. They
insist the fighting is to demand improved rights.

In the graveyard, Munim points out a memorial to Bujamin Ibrahimi, killed
by Macedonian police eight years ago. One of Sulejman Ramadani's cousins
tells of his time in prison when Macedonia was still part of Yugoslavia.

By yesterday evening, the Macedonian government said it had only managed to
push the rebels back a short distance.

All over Tetovo, both sides were talking of taking up arms. The rebellion
echoed loud and clear overhead. And, as the last prayers were said over
Sulejman Ramadani's tomb, the guerrillas had their first martyr.