Macedonia concerned at rising Albanian tensions
SKOPJE, Oct 31 (Reuters) - Macedonia cautioned on Wednesday against the politicisation of "criminal" elements in the country, amid growing signs of tension between the authorities and the ethnic Albanian minority.
The killing of a policeman this month and a row over the use of the Albanian flag have fuelled fears of political instability in Macedonia, just as the West tries to resolve the fate of 2 million independence-seeking Albanians in neighbouring Kosovo.
Macedonia's highest security body, the National Security Council, blamed recent security incidents on "criminal groups and individuals" acting without a political agenda.
But it called for vigilance "so that these criminals and small groups are not politically exploited in the future".
A Council statement noted "challenges in the context of regional events" -- a reference to talks on the fate of Serbia's breakaway Kosovo province, due to climax at the turn of the year.
NATO allies with 16,000 troops in Kosovo fear any unrest over the Albanian majority's demand for independence would quickly spread to Macedonia, where guerrillas fought a 2001 insurgency for greater rights for the 25 percent Albanian minority.
President Branko Crvenkovski said criminal groups were operating in areas "which in 2001 we called crisis regions."
"We should not underestimate the risk that over the coming period, somebody might try to exploit them in a political sense," he told reporters after the Council meeting.
Serb ally Russia has blocked United Nations adoption of a Western-backed plan to grant Kosovo independence eight years after NATO drove out Serb forces to stop them killing Albanians in a war with rebels.
U.S., Russian and European Union envoys are mediating fresh talks with a deadline of Dec. 10 to report back to the United Nations. Chances of a deal are slim, and Kosovo Albanian leaders say they will declare independence after the talks end.
Analysts warn that a Serb backlash could provoke a cycle of violence affecting Macedonia and Serbia's Presevo Valley, where Albanians also fought an insurgency in 2000.
The Albanian former guerrillas in Macedonia spent four years in government until 2006, but are angry at being left out of Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski's current ruling coalition, which includes a rival ethnic Albanian party.
A row in the Constitutional Court over implementation of a clause in the 2001 peace accord regarding when and where Albanians can fly the Albanian flag led to the resignation this week of the court's ethnic Albanian president.
An EU source told Reuters that the European Commission, in a report next week, would not recommend opening EU membership talks with Macedonia because of political problems in the former Yugoslav republic, dashing government hopes.
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