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FYR of Macedonia: UNHCR alarm at violence upsurge

Briefing notes

FYR of Macedonia: UNHCR alarm at violence upsurge

10 August 2001

UNHCR is alarmed by the upsurge of violence this week that threatens to plunge the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) into civil war. Heavy fighting broke out on Thursday in the largely ethnic Albanian town of Tetovo despite the anticipated signing of a peace agreement next week. Incidents of kidnapping and harassment are being reported every day. UNHCR calls on all armed forces in FYROM to refrain from deliberate attacks on civilians, especially those in a conflict zone.

On Wednesday night, UNHCR received a desperate evacuation request from some 40 ethnic Macedonians in Lesok, a village two kilometres north-east of Tetovo. They are mainly elderly people who remained in the village, caught in escalating conflict between ethnic Albanian rebels and state security forces. But humanitarian agencies have had no access to the villages near Tetovo since the killings earlier during the day of 10 policemen in an ambush on the main road between Skopje and Tetovo.

Angry ethnic Macedonians took the streets on Wednesday night after the rebel ambush, destroying ethnic Albanian- or Moslem-owned shops in Skopje and Prilep, hometown of the slain policemen south of the capital. UNHCR is concerned that the violence may trigger new displacement of ethnic Albanians from Prilep and its surrounding villages.

UNHCR also warns against the use of humanitarian access as a political tool. In the past couple of weeks there has been a series of retaliatory blockades as the government or NGOs organised humanitarian convoys to either ethnic Macedonian or ethnic Albanian villages. Also, access to electricity and water is increasingly becoming a bargaining chip in some of the affected villages around Tetovo and Kumanovo.

As a result of renewed violence, there has been a sharp decline in the number of returns of refugees from Kosovo to FYROM over the past several days. Returns on Wednesday totalled 373 and arrivals in Kosovo numbered 113. On Thursday as at 2 p.m. there were 123 returnees and 36 new refugees. Around 25,000 returns have been recorded since last month and 53,000 remain in Kosovo.