Andrew Purvis: We were in two villages that had been shelled during the night, and we had to leave in a hurry to avoid the new round of shelling expected when the government's cease-fire expires at midnight. The village of Shipkovice was shelled while we were there. It has been reported that NATO had flown drones over the area and shared the intelligence photographs with the Macedonians. Yet the Macedonians still ended up shelling a village packed with civilians. Luckily, no one was killed there, although there were one or two civilian casualties in other villages. We found ourselves in the basement of a house with 30 people, many of them children. Upstairs, one of the walls was destroyed by the shelling. It was miraculous that nobody was killed.
What's important to realize is that these villages are being shelled from Tetovo, which has no direct view of the villages. The Macedonian forces are firing artillery over a blind ridge. They couldn't see what they were firing at; it was a pretty violent affair.
When we left, everyone was hunkered down in basements again, waiting for more shelling. The purported aim of the cease-fire was to allow civilians to leave the area, but they are not going, at least not yet. If the shelling resumes overnight or tomorrow morning, there odds are very high that there will be civilian casualties and that will cause a serious escalation in this conflict.
Will the government forces actually try and move in to recapture the villages from the guerrillas?
Realistically, they're unlikely to try a ground offensive. They will probably continue shelling these villages, however. There's no chance of eliminating the insurgency this way. The fighters aren't going to go away or be eliminated by anything the Macedonian army is capable of doing right now. All the Albanians in the area view the shelling as a continuation of historical wrongs against them by Slavic people, and see Macedonians in the same way as the Kosovar Albanians saw the Serbs.
Why have the rebels now declared a cease-fire?
It's a smart move, because it puts pressure on the government to recognize them and open talks. The insurgency has been pretty localized, and you don't get impression that they have much in way of ammunition or arms. Most of the weapons they're carrying are of World War II vintage, although there are a few AK-47s. The rebel force probably numbers a few hundred, but they're getting new volunteers all the time. We saw a steady flow of young men moving into the rebel-controlled zone. They don't appear to be very organized at this stage, or to have the resources to open up new fronts. But the longer the fighting goes on, the more volunteers they’ll get and the more support they'll get from the local Albanian population.
I don't think these rebels are going to go away or be eliminated, and with their cease-fire offer there is more pressure for the government to recognize them as a political entity. It’s not clear how the government will respond. Up until now, it has refused to talk to the armed group. But mounting an offensive could also prove disastrous for the government.
What are the rebels saying they want?
They're saying they want recognition as a negotiating party, to force the government to meet demands for equal rights for Albanians. They want Albanian recognized as an official language, want a proper census so that they're represented in government proportionate to their actual number. They want greater representation in the police force, want to hear their own language on national TV and so on. They're saying they don't want to redraw borders or create a separate entity, but that they want to be equal partners in Macedonia.
But surely declaring war on a state and seizing territory is not the strategy of a grouping whose sole objective is simply to gain greater representation and civil rights within that state?
Well, they're saying they went through the political system for 10 years, but it's not working. There are probably several different objectives at work here. The commanders of the guerrilla force may well come from Kosovo, but most of the foot soldiers are local. The circumstances of Albanians in Macedonia were ripe for exploitation. It's hard to find an Albanian who won't identify with the cause of the guerrillas, even if they criticize its methods. Even if it's not entirely indigenous, there's clearly still a major problem in Macedonia without which this wouldn't have happened.