Albanian champion who took up arms to help his people

Author: By Justin Huggler

The Ahmeti family home does not look like the sort of place where revolutions begin. But the Albanian rebellion in Macedonia, which is threatening to start a new war in the Balkans, was dreamt up here, in a crumbling stone farmhouse, by a man who predicted the break-up of the former Yugoslavia when he was still at school.

Ali Ahmeti captured the world’s attention when he appeared up on television in Kosovo on Wednesday – his first public appearance as political leader of the Albanian guerrillas who have pushed the Balkans to the brink of yet another war.

Suspicions that Mr Ahmeti was one of those behind the rebel National Liberation Army (NLA) were first reported by The Independent on 12 March. He was one of four veterans of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), who fought Slobodan Milosevic’s forces in Kosovo, accused by a Pristina newspaper of organising the violence in Macedonia.

Zajas, the village where he lives, is a tiny, out-of-the-way place of mud roads and farmhouses. Yet it is famous throughout the Albanian communities of the world. Zajas was home to two earlier Albanian revolutionaries, Mefail i Vogel and Mefail i Mail, who fought against Tito’s partisans in the Second World war.

Mr Ahmeti’s younger brother, Fekri, recalled: “When my brother was at high school, he told everybody he would be the first to break up the old Yugoslavia. We all laughed at him.”

When Ali Ahmeti was studying at Pristina University in 1981 – Yugoslavia was still one country then – he was jailed for two months for taking part in a demonstration calling for Albanian rights. His brother says he became involved in Albanian political movements as soon as he was released.

After a second short spell in prison, he emigrated to Switzerland in 1984. There, under the nom de guerre of Abaz Gjuka, he became a founding member of the KLA.

After the Kosovo war ended in 1999, he returned to Macedonia. Many Albanians from Macedonia fought in the KLA, and some were said to be disenchanted when they were forced to go home after the war, unable to share in the spoils of victory.

Mr Ahmeti is believed to be one of a group of at least four men who control the NLA. It is clearly modelled on the KLA -both groups’ initials in Albanian, UCK, are the same. The NLA clearly has good connections in Kosovo. It has supplied its operations from inside the province, and its guerrillas have freely crossed the border, much to Nato’s embarrassment.

The Macedonian government accuses the NLA of trying to break away areas of Macedonia with a large Albanian population and unite them with a greater Kosovo.

“Ali did not want a war here in Macedonia,” says Fekri Ahmeti. “He believed we should try to win our rights democratically. But we asked for our rights for 10 years, and we did not get them.”

The prospects for a peaceful resolution now look increasingly bleak. Fekri Ahmeti says: “When I last spoke to my brother on the telephone, he told me Macedonia is finished.”

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