A big question mark looms over the future role of the United States in the growing conflict in Macedonia, according to Greek and other Balkan perceptions.
During a lull in fighting between Slavic Macedonian government forces and ethnic Albanian rebel guerrillas near the Macedonian capital of Skopje, several truckloads of U.S. troops escorted Albanians safely from the embattled Aracinovo village Monday.
In a recorded televised speech today, Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski said "this solution was necessary" to restore calm and further peace efforts without causing casualties.
Correspondents in Skopje said the armed guerrillas were allowed to take their weapons. The guerrilla commander known as Hoxha, after being dropped off by U.S. troops in the village of Nikustak, 6 miles north of Aracinovo, told reporters by phone that the operation was a "success."
"We showed that we are capable of taking territory and that we were ready to make peace," Hoxha said. "Now the Macedonians must make a proposal, but if they want war, they'll get it. We're ready to defend our people."
However, the transfer sparked overnight rioting by 5,000 protesters from the Slav majority, who attacked the parliament building, drove the president and prime minister from their offices and demanded the government's resignation.
Today, new fighting erupted between government forces and guerrillas at Nikustak and in several of the older fighting zones.
Mixed Opinions in Greece
Analysts in Greece, the first NATO member to suggest a NATO peacekeeping force in Macedonia several weeks ago, and to offer troops for it, blinked in wonderment.
"Are the Americans now protecting the Albanians?" one seasoned Balkan journalist asked.
Both NATO Secretary-General George Robertson and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell reiterated recently that NATO would use its forces to keep peace for Skopje only if the Macedonian government reached a political peace with the ethnic Albanians — something European observers here believe is a remote possibility.
Earlier, Greek commentators were gratified by last weekend's apparent electoral victory in Albania of a socialist government that has demurred at active support for militant Albanian guerrillas in Macedonia and elsewhere in the Balkans.
However, they were shocked by triumphant statements from the Albanian guerrillas that implied the ethnic Albanians had NATO support. Although Greece, as a NATO member, officially supported the NATO to drive Serbia out of Kosovo in 1999, the Greek population overwhelmingly opposed it.
The Greeks' residual sympathy for their fellow Orthodox Christians in Serbia and even for former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has gradually given way to lukewarm support or indifference. The change in tone followed revelations about Milosevic's alleged war crimes.
On the other hand, the influx of more than a million refugees from Albania and other Balkan neighbors, and the resulting rise in organized and violent crime, has also fostered resentment against the Albanian community.
The Macedonian conflict, which Greek socialist Prime Minister Costas Simitis' government fears will balloon into a new general Balkan war, also raises concerns here of a new flood of both Slav Macedonian and ethnic Albanian refugees. Such an influx would destabilize society and the economy in northern Greece's own province of Macedonia.