Macedonian army on alert along Serbian border

SKOPJE, Feb 23, 2000 -- (Reuters) The Macedonian army said on Wednesday it had raised its level of combat readiness along its border with southern Serbia, after an upsurge of ethnic violence in Kosovo.

"We are cautious because of events in the north and for this reason the combat readiness of the Kumanovo corps was raised to a higher level two days ago," army spokesman Gjorgji Trendafilov told Reuters.

"Our border patrols are more frequent and our guards are reinforced as well as the control on the border," he said. "From the other side of the border things can happen which can get out of control."

Trendafilov, who did not specify which events in the north he was referring to, stressed that the army was not sending new troops to the border region.

On Monday, NATO Secretary-General George Robertson said the alliance was monitoring a build-up of Yugoslav forces in areas of southern Serbia where he said there was "clearly rising tension".

Robertson was referring to the Bujanovac-Presevo-Medvedja region, lying just east of Kosovo and largely populated by ethnic Albanians. The region lies north of Macedonia.

NATO sources said the report concerned four companies of well-armed Interior Ministry police which had been moved into the region, where recent local reports have warned of mounting fear and violence.

The Yugoslav army, a completely separate institution to the Interior Ministry troops, has denied any build-up.

"Of course there are no additional troops of ours in the territory of Presevo," the commander of Yugoslavia's Third Army, Colonel-General Vladimir Lazarevic, was quoted by Belgrade daily Vecernje Novosti as saying on Wednesday.

"We have our border units there which very efficiently secure the state border with Macedonia. They prevent four to five illegal crossings daily in this border area," he said.

There has also been fresh violence this month in the northern Kosovo town of Mitrovica. On Monday, ethnic Albanian protesters clashed with NATO-led peacekeepers there.

Outbreaks of fighting in the city have left nine people dead and more than 20 wounded in February, including two French soldiers shot in gun battles.

The Macedonian army last raised its combat readiness during last year's Kosovo war, when NATO bombed Yugoslavia to halt its repression of the province's ethnic Albanian majority.

It also stepped upits readiness during civil disturbances in neighbouring Albania in the spring of 1997.

Original article