As social and political unrest continues in Macedonia, the U.S. State Department is urging Americans to stay out of the country — and authorized the departure of all non-emergency embassy personnel.
"The situation in Macedonia is unsettled and potentially dangerous as a result of armed clashes between Macedonian security forces and ethnic Albanian radicals," the advisory reads, noting that anti-Western sentiment has been particularly strong.
U.S. Forces Under Fire in New Violence
On Monday, fresh violence broke out in the wake of a White House-approved mission that saw U.S. forces come under fire when they helped evacuate hundreds of ethnic Albanians from a besieged village.
The American personnel, 81 well-armed combat troops of the 101st Airborne Division and 20 contractors, on Monday transported some 100 rebels and about 250 other civilians — men, women and children — out of Aracinovo and to a village 11 miles away under a plan to end clashes in the village.
The ethnic Albanians were escorted in a convoy of 15 buses, three trucks, three ambulances and 16 Humvees for security, officials said. The U.S. troops, part of a contingent located in the nearby capital of Skopje, were shot at during the operation, but did not shoot back. There were no reports of U.S. casualties.
Officials said the evacuation was quickly, but heavily planned. More troops were on standby, as were helicpters ready to conduct an evacuation of the forces.
But all did not go exactly according to plan. At one point, the U.S. forces were in visual sight of Macedonian government combat vehicles, though an agreement had required Macedonian forces pull back out of sight, so the convoy would not be in the vehicle's gunsights, NATO sources say. The U.S. troops asked the Macedonians to pull back, and they did.
At another point point, the convoy was held up at a Macedonian government checkpoint, allowing a large armed crowd to quickly gather around the troops, a Pentagon spokesman confirmed. "The U.S. commander on scene made the call and, rather than try to continue through the checkpoint and continue the process, I'm gonna turn around and seek another way and defuse the situation," said Rear Adm. Craig R. Quigley.
Quigley said the evacuation had the support of the Macedonian government. He also noted there are elements within Macedonian society that clearly opposed it.
Following the operation, anti-ethnic Albanian rioting broke out in Skopje. The protesters demanded harsher government action against ethnic Albanians.
NATO Secretary-General George Robertson praised the evacuation, calling it "a major step forward in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia peace process."
NATO and European Union envoys had earlier brokered a deal allowing the ethnic Albanians to pull out of Aracinovo and return to guerrilla-held territory. The deal, which came just days after government forces began an offensive on the violence-torn, strategically important area, was designed to revive peace talks.
However, violence continued Tuesday in a number of areas.
There were reports of intense fighting near the northwest town of Tetovo, as rebels attacked police positions on the outskirts of the city and government forces returned fire. A policeman was killed and four others were wounded, a U.S. official confirmed.
Macedonian governement forces hunted rebels in several villages, including in Nikustak, where the rebels in Aracinovo were were taken by NATO before further relocation, according to news reports.
Robertson, the NATO secretary-general, urged that a cease-fire be extended across the country. "I stress what I have said before: There is no military solution to the current crisis. The cessation of violence must now be made permanent."
Efforts to Make Peace
For more than a week, U.S. and European diplomats have been attempting to broker a cease fire agreement between Macedonian government forces and ethnic Albanian guerillas, hoping to prevent an all-out civil war in the country. NATO announced last week a peace agreement would be enforced with the introduction of NATO peacekeepers into the country.
The evacuation Monday signaled a surprising improvisation of U.S. policy. Reluctant to further involve U.S. forces in peacekeeping operations in the Balkans, the Bush administration has lately suggested U.S. forces would play only a supporting role in NATO peacekeeping operations in Macedonia.
U.S. officials said the U.S. troops and vehicles were used because they were the most quickly available.
"NATO requested the countries on an urgent basis, contribute vehicles to that effort, said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher at a press briefing. "We had some assets that were available for that purpose. And after approval by our chain of command, we deployed them for that use."
U.S. officials said the White House approved the operation. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters President Bush was informed of the mission ahead of time. But he did not answer directly the question of who in the administration had authorized using American troops.
Pentagon spokesman Quigley told reporters the evacuation did not signal a formal change in U.S. policy. "This particular event, I would not point to this … as a turning the corner and proceeding down a path where we will now continuously provide this level of support."
There are currently between 500 and 700 U.S. military personnel in Skopje, introduced in 1993 to symbolize U.S. opposition to instability spreading from neighboring Kosovo and Serbia proper. They provide logistical support for NATO forces in the region, and also include a contingent of combat troops for force protection.
U.S. military planning continues for supporting a peacekeeping mission, if there is a peace agreement. They are, so far, considering offering logistics, airlift, intelligence and communications support, but not direct troops for assisting in disarmament.
Rioting in the Capital
In Skopje Monday night, several angry Macedonian reservists stormed the parliament building, made their way to the balcony, and fired gunshots into the air, cheered on by the crowd of about 5,000 outside.
Others destroyed furniture inside the building, or hung the former Macedonian flag from the building. The flag was replaced more than half a century ago by communists when the country was still part of Yugoslavia.
Outside, crowds pounded on police cars and shouted: "Gas chambers for the Albanians," "Traitors, traitors," "Give us weapons" and "Death to the Albanians!"
In separate incidents, a U.S. Army soldier patrolling the Kosovo side of the Kosovo-FYROM border stepped on a land mine Monday while on routine. The wound was not life-threatening, according to Quigley, but the soldier lost his foot.
Also, a U.S. Army soldier in Macedonia was wounded southwest of Skopje, when the unmarked vehicle that he and some Macedonian officials were riding in received some small arms fire. The soldier was struck in the hand and possibly elsewhere and is being treated.
Albanians in Macedonia are outnumbered by Slavs more than 3 to 1. Armed rebels have been demanding more autonomy. Moderate ethnic Albanian leaders have been demanding greater participation in Macedonian civil society.
ABCNEWS' Barbara Starr, Terry Moran and David Ruppe contributed to this report.