21 Years Ago Today...
"Thank you to the entire US Embassy Skopje staff, among the best I ever worked with."
- Christopher R. Hill.
This article was originally published in the Washington Post, 21 years ago today, during Ambassador Hill's tenure as the U.S. Ambassador to Macedonia.
Embassies Attacked in Macedonia
By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, March 25, 1999; Page A1
SKOPJE, Macedonia, March 25 – Crowds of angry pro-Serbian demonstrators threw rocks, burned cars and attacked the U.S. Embassy here today as tensions flared in the southern Balkans in the aftermath of the NATO airstrikes on Serb-controlled Yugoslavia.
No embassy personnel were injured in the attack, during which the ambassador and his staff took refuge in a vault in the basement of the building. About 10,000 NATO troops stationed in Macedonia – including 350 Americans – who were to have been deployed as peacekeepers in Kosovo if a peace accord were reached for the rebellious Serbian province – were put on alert out of fear that violence might be directed at them.
Meanwhile, hundreds of refugees fleeing a Belgrade government offensive against ethnic Albanian separatists in Kosovo continued to cross the border into Macedonia and neighboring Albania. At the same time, Yugoslav troops and Serbian paramilitary units fired on villages in northeastern Albania and shot and wounded a border post commander, Albanian officials said.
Kudusi Lama, an Albanian officer who heads the 2nd Infantry Division in the northern city of Kukes, told the Reuters news agency that the border with Kosovo was "very hot," with Yugoslav security forces shooting at Albanian soldiers.
Macedonian Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski warned that anger toward NATO and the United States is rising here as a result of the NATO air attacks, even as he pleaded for urgent help from the West to deal with an estimated 20,000 ethnic Albanian refugees who had crossed the border from Kosovo.
"The two biggest problems the country is facing at the moment are the inflow of refugees from Kosovo and the emergence of anti-NATO and anti-American feelings among the Macedonian public," Georgievski said.
"If responsibility for the humanitarian catastrophe in Kosovo rests on Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, then the spillover of this catastrophe here is the responsibility of the U.S. and the European Union," Georgievski said.
Macedonia, a former Yugoslav republic that has maintained a pro-Western stance, is home to a small Serb minority as well as a Communist opposition that is against NATO intervention in Kosovo – where ethnic Albanian rebels have waged a year-long guerrilla campaign to win independence from Belgrade, capital of both Yugoslavia and Serbia. Officials here said that resentment is building over the NATO presence in the country because of concern the war in Kosovo might spread to Macedonia, which has a sizable ethnic Albanian minority.
Despite these concerns, authorities seemed unprepared for the violence directed at the U.S. Embassy today. Chanting "NATO out of Macedonia," the demonstrators initially threw stones and eggs at the embassy building. As the crowd grew – there were reports that demonstrators were bused in – protesters hurled firebombs and stormed the fence surrounding the embassy compound.
Once inside, they burned vehicles, trashed air conditioners, broke embassy windows and tried to penetrate the building's armored doors, a U.S. official said.
U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill and members of his staff took refuge in a basement vault that houses communications equipment. There they opened phone lines to Washington and to local authorities, asking for police assistance. Local riot police then used tear gas to disperse the crowd as NATO helicopters from the gathering Kosovo intervention force buzzed overhead.
The rioters then moved on toward the French, German and British embassies. German Embassy guards fired two percussion grenades to break up the crowd, but not before windows in the building were broken and the ground floor ransacked, Reuters reported.
Mob attacks on Western facilities were also reported in Banja Luka, the largest Serb-governed city of Bosnia, where hundreds of rioters carrying banners reading "Don't Give Up Mother Serbia" threw eggs, rocks and bottles at buildings associated with Britain, France, Germany and the United States. It was unclear if there were any injuries.
Adding to the strains on Macedonia and other Balkan states, relief workers and international organizations said, were the growing numbers of refugees fleeing what appears to be a determined offensive by Yugoslav and Serbian forces against the Kosovo Albanians. At the same time, hundreds of Muslim residents of Serbia's western Sanjak province have fled into the neighboring Muslim-controlled region of Bosnia, fearing a government crackdown on them as well as the Kosovar Albanians, most of whom also are Muslims.
The situation inside Kosovo was difficult to assess from this side of the border, since most relief agencies, journalists and international monitors have departed or been forced out. Fragmentary and often unconfirmed reports from refugees and the Kosovo Albanian rebel news agency painted a grim picture of burned and shelled villages, of civilians in police custody and summary executions.
The only international relief agency still operating in Kosovo is the International Committee of the Red Cross, which reported that last week – before the air attacks started and the government crackdown accelerated – it provided food, medicine and blankets to more than 12,000 people.
The U.N. refugee agency reported this week, before the NATO airstrikes began Wednesday night, that about 60,000 people had been left homeless since late February and that the total of Kosovo Albanian refugees had grown to 240,000. State Department spokesman James P. Rubin said there were 18,500 refugees in Albania and 25,000 in Montenegro, Serbia's satellite in the Yugoslav federation.
Macedonia hosts at least 20,000 recent Kosovo refugees, and more are arriving daily, officials said – a heavy burden for one of Europe's poorest countries. "We are reaching our limit; we need urgent funds to deal with this situation, which not only hurts the economy but could also affect the general mood," said Vasil Tupurkovski, whose party is a partner in a coalition government.
News agencies reported that the Kosovo village of Goden, an ethnic Albanian community near the Albanian border, was in flames and that most of the women and children among the population of about 250 had been forced by police into Albania. A spokesman for the 55-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said he had no information about the fate of the men of the village, Reuters reported.
The ultimate worry for both Macedonia and Albania is the possibility of becoming a target for Serb-Yugoslav military reprisals. Officials went out of their way to deny a charge by Belgrade that NATO troops here were poised to invade Yugoslavia. "The speculation is completely untrue," said Macedonian Defense Minister Nikola Klusev. "We said yesterday in parliament and before that that Macedonia will not be used in an attack against a neighbor, and the neighbor respects this."
Staff writer Thomas W. Lippman in Washington contributed to this report