Fighting Erupts in Aracinovo on First Anniversary of NLA’s 'Free Zone'
Heavy gunfire erupted at 9:00 PM local time in Aracinovo, the embattled suburb of Skopje that reportedly still retains a strong NLA presence. The fighting, which lasted approximately 45 minutes and included heavy machine gun fire from the NLA and return mortar fire from the Macedonian army, is believed to have resulted from an Albanian "celebration" gone wrong. Today marks the one-year anniversary of the NLA’s "free zone" declaration, which temporarily brought Aracinovo under full NLA control.
While the commemoration could have transpired without much fanfare, neither NATO nor the Macedonian army had been informed, according to Dutch journalist Peter John Bosse, who watched the battle from his rooftop, barely half a mile from Aracinovo. Bosse alerted the local and international authorities moments after the fighting began. He learned from NATO sources and Albanian witnesses inside Aracinovo what was going on: "as the Macedonian security forces were not told about this anniversary party, they felt threatened and returned fire from their nearby checkpoints. And then from their positions in the mountains around Aracinovo, they also returned fire with mortars… there were lots of lights – it was like New Year’s."
By 10:00 PM, the fighting had subsided, but sporadic gunfire continued – and from new areas. Heavy machine-gun fire was heard by this reporter from Aracinovo, as well as from several other Albanian villages on the eastern edge of Skopje. The howling of dogs and whining call to prayers from Albanian mosques lent an air of the surreal to this sultry night in Skopje.
One hour later, the situation remains tense, and the main road to Aracinovo has been blocked by Macedonian police since 9:05. Bosse tried to get to the suburb shortly thereafter, but was turned back by police due to the fighting.
Albanian sources within Aracinovo, contacted by telephone, reported that the streets were filled with heavily armed Albanian fighters, dressed in black vests but without their usual NLA patches. Aracinovo, and nearby villages like Opae and Slupjane, remain heavily pro-NLA.
Aracinovo was the scene of the most controversial battle during last year’s war. After the NLA threatened to attack Skopje airport in late July, the Macedonian army commenced a punishing three-day assault, which was only ended when NATO forces evacuated the heavily armed Albanian fighters on buses. While journalists and Macedonian army members claimed to have seen American military trainers evacuated with the NLA fighters, NATO denied it. This latest round of fighting indicates that Aracinovo’s potential for future conflict – and controversy – remains high.
Christopher Deliso is a journalist and travel writer with special interest in current events in the areas of the former Byzantine Empire the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, and Caucasus. Mr. Deliso holds a master's degree with honors in Byzantine Studies (from Oxford University), and has traveled widely in the region. His current long-term research projects include the Macedonia issue, the Cyprus problem, and the ethnography of Byzantine Georgia. He is currently living in Macedonia and reporting regularly for Antiwar.com.
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