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Is a New War Brewing in the Balkans?

It was a close call. Just a few hours before army and police troops were set to heavily bombard armed Albanian insurgents fighting to take control of the northwestern corner of the Balkan state of Macedonia, the rebels called for a ceasefire. "We think it is better to talk rather than start a fight between the two peoples, because blood will be shed and then there will be no room for talks," Ali Ahmeti, political spokesman for the so-called National Liberation Army declared on television in neighboring Kosovo on Mar. 21.

But the troubled Balkans may still be facing another war--and that could prove to be a dangerous test for President George W. Bush and the 37,000 NATO troops stationed in Kosovo. There's no telling how long the ceasefire will hold, and pressures have been building steadily in the region. Since late last year, armed Albanian insurgents have been trying to destabilize a 70-mile-long strip of territory running along Kosovo's border with Serbia--both part of Yugoslavia--and into Macedonia. Hundreds of rebels, as well as their weapons, have been streaming over the frontier.

The guerrillas have mainly attacked Serb police and the Macedonian police and army, but NATO troops have also come under fire. U.S. forces have engaged in skirmishes, and a German soldier was wounded on Mar. 16. He was one of some 4,000 troops that NATO has stationed in Macedonia to provide logistical support for the force in Kosovo.

That's why on Mar. 19, NATO officials decided to bolster patrols on the Kosovo border with Macedonia. Lieutenant General Carlo Cabigiosu, commander of the NATO force in Kosovo, says he is also sending armor and artillery troops into Macedonia to "provide a robust level of protection" for NATO logistical operations there. Meanwhile, Greece and Bulgaria are channeling aid to the Macedonian army, including helicopter gunships.

Why are diplomats still worried about a possible war? Although the Albanian insurgents say they want greater civil rights for the Albanian-Muslim minority in Macedonia, many observers believe there's a bigger goal. The guerrilla force is dominated by radicals who want independence for Kosovo and its merger into a greater Albanian state linking Kosovo, northwest Macedonia, and, eventually, Albania.

RADICAL HOPES. Some analysts say the insurgents fear warming relations between NATO and Yugoslavia, where democratically elected President Vojislav Kostunica replaced strongman Slobodan Milosevic last year. As long as Milosevic was in power, Albanian radicals clung to hopes that Kosovo might become independent, despite U.S. opposition.

But Kostunica, in contrast to Milosevic, is likely to work with the EU and the U.S. to seek a political solution to the conflict between Kosovar Albanians and Serbs. Albanian guerrillas launched their offensive precisely to stymie that process, analysts say. "Kostunica's election produced panic among [pro-independence] Albanians," notes Michael Radu, a Balkans expert at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

Now, what European and U.S. diplomats fear is that the ceasefire will not hold and the rebels will touch off a wider war. If the fighting keeps up, pressure will grow on NATO to play a more active role. That could involve a controversial decision to send NATO troops to combat rebels in Macedonia. Washington, however, wants to avoid an escalation.

Strangely, NATO troops could yet find themselves increasingly under fire from the very people they were sent to protect--ethnic Albanians. That's the last thing the allies expected when they came to the Kosovars' defense back in 1999. The Green Party may be the new wild card in French politics. In their best showing ever in France, Green candidates captured nearly 12% of the popular vote in municipal elections ending on Mar. 18. They won 15% of the seats on the Paris city council and took control of city halls in three towns with populations of over 20,000.

The surge in votes for the Greens may be attributable to growing disaffection with established leftist and Gaullist parties. Green voters are mostly middle-class 25-to-49-year-olds who in the past voted Socialist, says Philippe Mechet, director of the SOFRES polling group. Success in the municipal vote may pave the way for a better result in next year's legislative elections, even though the Greens still lack an effective national organization. President Vicente Fox is trying to rescue his Chiapas peace process as subcommander Marcos and 23 other Zapatista rebels prepare to return to the jungle. The Zapatistas traveled to Mexico City to lobby for passage of an indigenous-rights bill that Fox sent to Congress in December. The rebels angrily announced they would leave on Mar. 23 after legislators rejected Marcos' demand to address the Congress.

In response, Fox is offering to meet with Marcos. And he has agreed to Zapatista demands to free more prisoners. Fox will have to overcome some legislators' concerns that the bill grants too much autonomy to indigenous groups. Whether or not Fox succeeds, Marcos will be returning to the jungle with new political strength.

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