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Albania’­s Strela Missiles Meant for New Macedonian Conflict Zones

December 25, 2004

(Balkanalysis.com Research Service)-  When the Albanian newspaper Panorama reported that 3 Strela shoulder-fired missiles, of alleged Bosnian provenance, had been intercepted by the government en route to their final destination with Albanian militants in Macedonia, the interior ministry of the latter state issued a firm denial: “…as a result of the information in certain Albanian media that the seized rockets were intended for Macedonia, the Ministry of Interior contacted its colleagues from Albania, who told us that Macedonia was not the rockets’ final destination,” said Spokesman Goran Pavlovski on 14 December.

However, this optimistic denial is contradicted by information from other sources. “What, were they going to put [the missiles] in a museum?” scoffed one Macedonian defense official Thursday, who also discounted the possibility that they were perhaps to be sent to Greece. Official spokesmen have been at a loss to explain just what this sophisticated and lethal weaponry was doing, when found in the back of a sausage truck from Montenegro.

Indeed, there seems to be something suspicious about the whole affair. IWPR cites the director-general of the Albanian police as saying “…This was a police operation prepared in advance.” Four suspects were arrested in their vehicle near Fushe Preze, 20 kilometers north of Tirana. While the Albanian authorities billed it as a great day for coordinated international policing, a “civil rights activist” quoted in the same article practically accuses the government of complicity: “Erion Veliaj, leader of the Albanian civic protest movement Mjaft! (Enough!), told IWPR, ‘Everything the government doesn’t traffic itself, it intercepts to impress the international community.’”

No surprise that these dedicated interventionists are citing a Soros-inspired tool for regime change and social engineering in Albania, modeled on successful bodies in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine. Yet perhaps there is something to this charge. Said the Macedonian defense official, “we know that for every [arms shipment] they seize there are several more that can get through undetected.” Although reluctant to put a figure on the total number of such cases, the official stated that in four or five cases this year his office had learned – too late – about an incoming weapons shipment.

This would seem to bolster the account given in Panorama. Where their view diverges from our most recent information is regarding the points of intended transfer. Pogradec, on the south shores of Lake Ohrid, was initially suggested as being the missiles’ transfer route, and Kondovo their final destination.

However, this is not likely, as anyone familiar with geography and logistics could tell. The area around the border point east of Pogradec is well-policed; once across, over an hour of driving is required before any would-be arms smugglers could enter into any presumed “safe” areas for Albanian separatism.

On the other hand, bringing the weaponry in through the remote mountain passes near Debar, in west-central Macedonia, would be far more likely to succeed. Macedonian security sources surveyed recently paint a picture of a wide (and wild) border area stretching from Kosovo in the north to the Debar/Struga area in the southwest, sprinkled with Albanian criminal gangs.

“They are not the ANA [the so-called Albanian National Army] paramilitaries – just petty criminals. But the paramilitary leaders based in Albania and Kosovo hope to recruit them and use them for localized provocations, like in Kondovo, in exchange for cash.”

Under this scenario, Macedonia’s defense planners are taking into consideration the possibility that violence might break out in one of the sleepy villages of the western mountains, untouched by war during the 2001 conflict.

For this reason too, the conclusion of the Panorama report – that Kondovo was the missiles’ final destination – may also be off the mark. Indeed, if the missiles came in from Montenegro and were destined for Kondovo, it would be far more logical to send them through the wilds of northeastern Albania and then through the Tetovo area.

Even without a wider war, such a turn of events would pose a significant challenge for the Macedonian authorities, as it would extend the conflict zone beyond that which existed during 2001. Considering all the recent talk of arms buildups in Kosovo, the Tetovo, Kumanovo and (as we saw) Kondovo areas, this new information regarding Debar and the west seems to fit a certain context. In the event of a significant armed uprising, light provocations in the latter region could work well by drawing government forces away from the former, most strategically vital areas.

The missiles, according to one report from the old stockpile of the Yugoslav army, are so useful for the terrorists because of their ability to down helicopters. The Strela has a four-kilometer range, and it and similar models have been used in attacks on civilian and military aircraft in Kenya and Iraq, among other places.

The Americans pressed Macedonia to retire its few fighter planes in exchange for more helicopters, as they were seen to be a better tool for defending the state. In attempting to redress the imbalance, any would-be freedom fighters on the Albanian side would like to eliminate Macedonia’s air superiority, meager as it may be.

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