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3 Macedonian Policemen Die After Attack - 2001-11-12

In Macedonia, ethnic-Albanian guerrillas are being blamed for the deaths of three police officers in an attack Sunday in the northern part of the country. The attack took place near the ethnic Albanian stronghold of Tetovo and raises concerns that Macedonia may be on the verge of more ethnic conflict.

The officers were involved in an operation to secure the site of an alleged mass grave that Macedonian officials say contains the remains of as many as 12 people killed earlier this year by ethnic Albanian guerrillas.

The slain officers belonged to an elite police unit that was sent to the area by Macedonia's interior minister, Ljube Boskovski.

Interior ministry officials say the unit was to take control of a mass grave that they say may contain the bodies of 12 Macedonians.

The attack took place only days after NATO Secretary General George Robertson was in Skopje, Macedonia's capital. He warned that the country is on the verge of all-out conflict unless its parliament approves a Western-backed peace plan that the government and guerrillas agreed to in August.

But Macedonia's ethnically divided parliament has so far failed to approve the constitutional changes required under the plan. The changes would give Macedonia's estimated 600,000 ethnic Albanians greater political and cultural rights.

Although the guerrillas handed over nearly 4,000 weapons to NATO peacekeepers in September, military experts believe that tens of thousands of guns and explosives may be buried in the mountains for possible future use.

That moment seems to be drawing nearer. In addition to killing the three officers, local police accused the guerrillas of kidnapping about 60 Macedonians overnight in the area where the killings occurred, including of the director of a local television station.

The European Union has warned that the violence and lack of a functioning peace plan could delay foreign aid to Macedonia, which it desperately needs to recover from many months of ethnic strife.