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Macedonia, 2001
By Tom Cooper with Mark Nixon
Nov 30, 2003, 10:41

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Complex Background

The name Macedonia comes from the times of ancient Greece, when Macedonia was one of many Greek mini-states. It became well-known for one of its rulers, Alexander Macedonian, who conquered Minor Asia, Egypt, and Persia. In subsequent centuries Macedonia used to comprise much larger geographic areas. However, in modern times, after the Balkan Wars, 1912-1913, it was partitioned between Bulgaria, Greece, and Serbia. After in 1945 Yugoslavia came under a Communist rule, the Serbian part of Macedonia became one of six republics of what until 1991 was the (former) Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, with Macedonians being granted the status of constituent nation, language, and culture, equal to other five republics.

Following the example of Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, on 17 November 1991 Macedonia declared independence, becoming a member of the United Nations in May 1992, under provisional name „The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia“ (FYROM) – resulting mainly from the fierce Greek resistance to accept the use of the name "Macedonia". In fact, from 1994 until 1995 Greece declared an unilateral trade embargo that had a strong impact on the Macedonian economy - which was never specially strong even at best times, and already badly damaged by the UN sanctions against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) from 1992 to 1996. It was not before autumn 2004 that the country was finally recognized under the name Macedonia – first by the USA and then several other nations.

On gaining independence Macedonia was set as a republic with unicameral parliament – a 120-seat National Assembly – and a popularly elected President. Contrary to other former Yugoslav republics, it managed to separate from Serbia without any bloodshed. For the first seven years it was ruled by former socialists (considered „Communists“ in the West), who prevented the country from being drawn into any kind of conflict. The Social Democratic Party (SDSM) could not push through the necessary reforms of the society and economy. On the contrary, during the 1990s it came under pressure for massive corruption and connections to local, Serbian, and Albanian organized crime, mainly consisting of large-scale smugglers, who acted against UN-imposed embargos on Former Yugoslavia, and especially Serbia. Consequently, this government was voted out on parliamentary elections in 1998 in favour of a coalition of nationalist Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization-Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity (VMRO-DPMNE), Democratic Alternative (DA), and the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA).

“Ethnic“ Tensions

The new government immediately faced immense problems and began losing popularity. By November 2000 the DA withdrew from the coalition and was replaced by the small Liberal Party. Political scandals and economic difficulties had a heavy impact on the government, which was considered as corrupt by the population as previous SDSM. Clearly, this situation had a severe impact on relations between the Slav Macedonian majority and ethnic Albanian minority, which were already tense ever since country’s independence – even if not as bad as in Kosovo under Serbian rule. On one side, the Albanians in Macedonia demanded greater cultural and educational rights, as well as representation in the government, armed forces and police; on the other side, large Serbian, Macedonian and Albanian – but also Greek and Bulgarian – smuggling bands were active in Macedonia of the 1990s. Their business flourished as long as the UN embargos against FRY were in force, and while SDSM was in power, almost nothing was done against their activity.

However, the conflict between the Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo and the conduct of presidential elections in Macedonia in 1999, exacerbated inter-ethnic tensions. Charges of violence and ballot-stuffing highlighted tensions, further increased by a flood of 250.000 Kosovar Albanian refugees on the height of the Kosovo War. Eventually even the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) became present in Macedonia, establishing bases and supply centres from which it was dispatching fighters into FRY. It did not last very long until some of Albanian bands formed their own militias: private „bodyguards“ were available in sufficient number - and omnipresent whenever specific local bosses felt their „rights“ or interests threatened. Due to the uprisings and chaos in Albania, in 1996, and then the war in Kosovo, there were now plenty of weapons available at low prices.

Smuggling has long traditions in the Balkans, and in the case of Macedonia in the 1990s even top government officials were involved in different smuggling operations with Kosovo and Albania – which were mainly run by ethnic Albanians. During the crisis on Kosovo, in 1998 and 1999, large stockpiles of weapons intended for KLA were stored in depots in villages on the Macedonian border to Kosovo. Smuggling of fuels, narcotics, tobacco, „white slaves“, and even chocolate was widespread and top Macedonian political brass was getting „financial compensation“ for doing nothing against such crimes. Whoever protested within the Macedonian authorities was removed from his post. This dangerous combination of ethnic tensions and organized crime now only needed a spark that would cause the fire. While redirecting smuggling channels from Kosovo to Macedonia and gearing up the propaganda machine against the Macedonian government – especially among the ethnic Albanians living abroad – the NLA began attacking police and army personnel and facilities, but then also public facilities (like rail lines).

Macedonian Air Force

The former Yugoslav forces stationed in Macedonia until 1992 consisted of a number of brigades under two corps commands, a single airfield – Petrovec AB, near Skopje – with 98th Aviation Brigade, and the 450th Air Defence Regiment. In addition to these units there was also the so-called „Teritorialna Odbrana“ – militia that was to be mobilized in a case of emergency - armed mainly with obsolete and equipment that was in poor condition. Most of the heavy equipment of the former federal military was taken away by the Serbs – down to windows and doors in local barracks. What was left was of little use; Macedonians thus had to start from a scratch.

One of the first military organizations they formed was the Voeno Vozduhoplovstvo i Protiv-Vozdushnata Odbrana na Armijata na Republika Makedonia (VViPVO ARM), which was a small air arm, equipped with one Utva 66 liaison- and four Utva 75 basic training aircraft. Nevertheless, technically the VViPVO was a whole Corps within the Army. The first significant reinforcement appeared in the form of four Mi-17 helicopters, purchased from the Ukraine in 1994. Due to international arms embargo all were initially operated in civilian colours and registrations, even if being used entirely for military purposes.

When delivered to Macedonia, in 1994, the first four Mi-17-1Vs of the VViPVO ARM were all painted in white, and carried civilian registrations. The reason was that they were supplied despite the then existing UN arms embargo. In 1995, following the suspension of this embargo, all were camouflaged in Sand, Mid-Green and Dark-Green, and given full military insignia. Seen on this photograph are VAM-301/Z3-HHC and VAM-302/Z3-HHD. The other two early Macedonian Mi-17s were VAM-303/Z3-HHE and VAM-304/Z3-HHF. (Photo: Macedonian MoD)

Following the suspension of the arms embargo, all four Mi-17s have got proper camouflage painting and military markings.

In 1995 the VViPVO was reinforced by addition of four Zlin 242 basic training aircraft, acquired from Czech Republic. Zlins replaced Utva 75s. By the time the sole Utva 66 was already in-operational: this old aircraft was sold as “scrap” in 1999 to a local flying club – for restoration.

Meanwhile, the whole Macedonian Army (ARM) went through a similar process of growth and reorganization. It was officially formed on 18 August 1992 from former Yugoslav Army and TO personnel, as well as what little equipment was not removed by the Serbs. Initially it modelled itself as a smaller version of the former Yugoslav Army, its commanders envisaging no less but three corps, an air force and an air defence corps, as well as a number of operational commands. Such aspirations proved far beyond the capability of the small and poor nation and were never realized.

By 1996 Macedonia applied for membership in NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) program and plans were set the ARM to move from self-reliance to mutual protection capability. For this the military required a major reorganization. This began in 1998, when also first major arms donations arrived. However, during the following years similar, “new” plans for reorganization were published almost every six months and every time they were superseded long before realization. Under control of corrupt politicians and higher ranks each of which had own ideas about the future of the military, with many officers removed or retired for incompetence, the ARM – and so also the VViPVO – was eventually to become involved in one of the most difficult kinds of armed conflicts – a counter-insurgency war – before being ready for any kind of warfare. Finding itself in the middle of several simultaneous reorganizations, each of which was undertaken according to a different plan, the ARM and VViPVO at the time were not only not really functioning, but actually in a state of chaos. There were two corps HQs, but both were not yet operational. Some battalions were independent commands, others were organized into ad-hoc brigades. Personnel needed to be properly trained in almost all aspects of military art. Without surprise, an internal report was so highly critical about the situation within the ARM and its overall performance that the Chief of Staff, Lt.Gen. Andrevski, stood down.

The first out of four Mi-17s supplied to Macedonia was VAM-301. It is seen here as appearing after being camouflaged, in 1995. Note the heavy camouflage in Sand, Mid-Green and Dark-Green, with serial ("VAM-301") applied in Grey. "VAM-303" was an exception from this rule in having its serials applied in "low-visibility" fashion, in Mid-Green and Sand over Sand and Mid-Green. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)

Outbreak of the War

The first attacks by ethnic Albanians on Macedonian security forces occurred in late 2000 and early 2001, mainly along the border to Kosovo. The insurgents acted in a pattern similar to the one seen in Kosovo in late 1997 and through 1998, according to which they gradually took over one village after the other. Any such efforts were initially “peaceful”, the non-Albanian population being “encouraged” to leave. But, at some point armed actions followed against legitimate authorities, with the definition between peaceful domination and violence being ill defined – i.e. simply left in the hands of local rebel commanders.

The government at first did nothing against the situation because it received assurances from its „business partners“, that what was going on was not directed against Macedonia. Satisfied with the answer and their payments the authorities waited for almost two months – and then the situation was almost immediately out of control, in fact so much that the government was not only taken by surprise but also made one mistake after the other.

However, the payments then suddenly stopped, while the number of attacks was growing. In fact, in January 2001 a group calling itself the National Liberation Army (NLA) appeared, claiming responsibility for attacks on police forces. The leaders of this NLA – including Ali Ahmeti and his uncle, Fazli Veliu, were all from Western Macedonia. They stated to have “between several hundreds and thousands” of fighters under arms. However, they were not supported by either of the two main ethnic Albanian political parties. The Macedonian government responded that the rebels were actually members of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), who “infiltrated” the country from Kosovo. Certainly, the KFOR and the UN-peacekeepers stationed in Macedonia already since 1992 were doing nothing to keep them outside the country. In fact, the NLA-fighters considered Kosovo as “safe heaven” where they could pull back in the case of larger Macedonian actions against them.

Finally, on 17 March the ARM was ordered to send a force in the conflict-ridden town of Tetovo and capture several local Albanian depots. During this operation, which resulted in first larger clashes between the Macedonian authorities and the Albanians in the country, a VViPVO Mi-17 crashed while landing at the ski resort of Popova Sapka. The helicopter was actually pushed by wind into an electric pole around 17:00hrs, shortly after dark. One technician, Mst.Sgt. Draganco Ilievski, was killed, while 12 other crewmembers and troops that were aboard were badly injured, five of them heavily and six slightly. All were subsequently evacuated to the hospitals in Skopje. Despite this mishap, after four days of fighting the Macedonian forces drove rebels off positions overlooking the city of Tetovo.

Reaction of the government was interesting: “suddenly”, funding for the military and security authorities – that was not available for years – became available. In fact, during the following months the ARM was to get so many helicopters, tanks, artillery, equipment and ammunition that it could have defeated an enemy that was two times as strong as the Albanian rebels in Macedonia would ever be. On 24 March the first two Mi-24Vs and four Mi-8MTs arrived from the Ukraine. During March also Greece supplied two Bell UH-1Hs taken from its 1st Army Aviation Brigade to VViPVO. The pilots for these were trained for 20 days in Stefanivikon.

It must be mentioned here that despite plenty of reports of the contrary, the Macedonian military had enough trained pilots and technical personnel to sustain new equipment. For example, there were no less but 55 pilots with the VViPVO left from the times of the former JRViPVO. For most of the 1990s these have not got more than 20 hours flying time annually, but under new conditions there was suddenly enough money for them to be re-qualified for different types of helicopters in a 20h long crash-course in the Ukraine. The first group of eight pilots then returned – together with their new escorts, and contracted Ukrainian personnel that was to take care about the maintenance of delivered equipment, as well as supervision of their deployment for a period of between six and 12 months – to Macedonia. Consequently, down to very few early combat sorties, the VViPVO Mi-24s were for most of the times flown by Macedonian pilots.

Having the ARM reinforced the government began preparing an operation that was to see the rebels being driven out of Macedonian towns and villages and into Kosovo. Simultaneously, the KFOR and the UN-troops in Macedonia were requested to take a more robust approach in stopping the rebels from crossing the border. Refusing to negotiate any terms with what they called “terrorists”, in late March 2001 the government then launched an offensive to regain control of rebel-held villages around Tetovo. Advancing slowly, sometimes supported by Mi-24s, the Macedonians carefully attempted to avoid mistakes of the Serbian police and military in Kosovo, namely to act overly aggressive and expose themselves to world condemnation. At first the resistance was minor and the ARM regained control over a number of villages. During an attack against the rebels that were meanwhile besieging Tetovo two Hinds were observed firing unguided rockets against enemy positions on the Mount Sar. In the following hours the same area was heavily bombarded by Macedonian artillery, and on the following day – 20 March 2001 - additional troops were deployed in the combat area by Mi-17 helicopters. Moving a column of armoured vehicles – including T-55s – through Tetovo towards the Mt. Sar, the Macedonians eventually advanced in such power that the NLA simply melted away in front of them, disappearing over the border to Kosovo. Eventually, this attack that was launched in such a bold manner came to an end on the evening of 25 March. The problem this time was that the sole objective of this operation was to push the Albanians only so far that these would be unable of laying mortar fire on Tetovo. Clearly, the ARM could not sustain a permanent presence of such a force in the area. As soon as a better part of the troops was away the incursions continued and the violence soon spread into Tetovo, the sections of which periodically came under intensive mortar attacks.

One from the original batch of Mi-24s supplied to Macedonia was this Mi-24V, serialled 201, and operated by 201 Squadron during the bitter fighting against Albanian rebels, in summer 2001. Note that all the Macedonian Hinds lacked rails for ATGMs, and were almost always carrying two UB-32-16 rocket launchers under each wing. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)

Bitter Pills for NATO

One of the characteristics of this war was the fact that the Macedonian public and government were swift to accuse the NATO and UN troops deployed as “peacekeepers” in the country for not only supporting, but directly collaborating with Albanian insurgents. The reasons for this were multiple, and it must be said that the Western powers failed to act in accordance with their mandate.

When the war in Macedonia broke out there was a number of foreign contingents stationed in the country under UN-supervision. These contingents, under the unitary command called UNMIK, consisted of US, British, French, German and several other units. After the Kosovo War, in 1999, also additional NATO contingents were deployed to Macedonia in support of the KFOR. As the fighting grew in intensity, instead of taking necessary steps to prevent NLA from infiltrating from Kosovo into Macedonia, most of the foreign troops limited their activities to a bare minimum. In fact, once the serious fighting began some contingents – including the German base - were evacuated. This came only few days after NLA snipers fired at this base while it was visited by the German Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer. The decision to evacuate this base was not taken by Berlin alone: Germans had a supply base for the KFOR with 300 supply troops, capable of defending the perimeter but neither trained nor equipped for offensive action. Due to the international community seeing the situation in Kosovo as separate from the situation in Macedonia – which they were only technically - their rules of engagement were strict and not permitting engagements of the NLA. Anything else would have to be sanctioned by the German parliament. Consequently, the Germans had no other choice but to pull out. When they did so they evacuated a part of their personnel while leaving a number of troops in a new base few kilometres down the road, which was reinforced by a battery of M-109 self-propelled guns. However, the Macedonian public noticed only that the Germans are “packing their baggage”, and this prompted them to conclude that especially the NATO countries were not only lacking the stomach to resist the rebels, but also leaving the government in Skopje alone. The fact that subsequently the Germans deployed a reinforced mechanized company (including four Leopard 2 tanks) from Prizren to Tetovo, in order to secure a perimeter around the city, mattered little – or nothing at all.

It must also be mentioned that a number of top Macedonian officials were strictly against the NATO. In fact, there was a whole fraction within the defence hierarchy that was openly pro-Serbian. The then Commander of VViPVO, earlier Col. and later Brig.Gen. Stojanovski, for example, was reported to be one of the officers influenced by several Serbian military “instructors”, sent to Skopje from Belgrade. The Serbs, still having the NATO-attack from 1999 fresh in their minds, and a similar problem with Albanians in general, were not interested in seeing Macedonia becoming completely dependent on NATO. Stojanovski was already not pleased by the presence of foreign troops: in fact, he was fiercely “anti-NATO” and accusing it of not only indirectly supporting the Albanians, but also doing whatever was possible to support their armed struggle against local governments. Such opinion remained widespread between Slavic Macedonians, who until today do not only think that they were left alone in their fight against the NLA, but actually that the NATO was directly supporting Albanians – by not taking the necessary steps to preclude their infiltration from Kosovo, nor against their bases inside Macedonia.

For similar reasons persistent rumours were flying around about the Serbian “instructors” being influential in a possible Macedonian order for several SOKO G-4 Super Galeb training aircraft and strikers from Serbia, or some other aircraft that were in service with the Yugoslav Air Force. Of course, such a decision would make little sense, then the G-4s or other aircraft the Serbs could offer could only carry weapons that would have minimal effect in a COIN war.

Whatever the politics, the influence of the NATO – and then also the EU – was not very welcome in Macedonia at the time, and only massive pressure from Brussels could force the government to act in a manner that eventually lead to the ceasefire. Until today, it remains unclear how much was this pressure indeed influential for subsequent decisions of the government in Skopje, and how were different EU promises for economic aid and investitions in the Macedonian economy responsible for this.

NLA Ante Portas

There followed a lull in fighting that lasted several weeks, but was actually used by the NLA to re-deploy and reorganize its forces. On 28 April they ambushed an ARM convoy near the village of Vejce, near Tetovo, killing eight and wounding six Macedonian troops and police officers. In response the ARM deployed additional armoured units into the area. On 2 May renewed fighting broke out around Tetovo, with the Macedonian government calling civilians to leave the area around one of nearby Albanian villages until a certain deadline and then attacking there with all available means, including at least two Mi-24 helicopters. In reports shown on the local TV, Mi-24s were seen flying in at relatively high speed and approx 150 meters, while attacking rebel positions.

Nevertheless, on 3 May 2001 the NLA set up another ambush against security forces, near Vaksince, killing two ARM soldiers and capturing a third one. This time the government reacted in force, deploying VViPVO Mi-24s to strike several rebel-held villages in the Kumanovo region.

By mid-May the ARM, after a call-up of necessary reserves and partial re-equipment with additional weapons acquired from all possible parts of the world – but foremost the Ukraine – as well as after a necessary co-ordination of their actions with international acceptance, launched another offensive. This began by fierce artillery and air attacks against a number of rebel-held villages. Like before, initially this operation was largely successful – with minimal casualties. However, the ARM failed to capture even a single terrorist – regardless if dead or alive. Most of these simply disappeared, retreating across the mountains to Kosovo. When ARM troops finally moved in, the NLA re-appeared in force, and the Macedonians were not only repulsed, but the insurgents subsequently advanced on Tetovo and Skopje.

The situation worsened during the following days as the government reiterated its appeal to the villagers of six villages – including Slupcane, which was heavily targeted by Mi-24s – in the Kumanovo region to flee take their passports or identity cards and leave their houses as soon as possible, using main roads to reach safer areas. Using artillery and attack helicopters the Macedonians claimed to have inflicted serious damage on terrorist strongpoints and killed a dozen of NLA fighters. In reaction to this operation even Albania started deploying additional security forces – including no less but three Army brigades – along its border to Macedonia. However, a ceasefire negotiated by the NATO brought an end to the fighting – for the time being, then this truce was not to last for long. On 12 May the VViPVO Mi-24s were in action again. Around 10:10hrs two rocketed the NLA-positions in the mountain village of Slupcane. Only ten minutes later they hit also a column of NLA fighters north of the same place. In the afternoon, around 14:30hrs they also attacked a NLA-column underway northwest of Vakcince. Reportedly, 30 rebels were killed in these strikes, which were then continued by artillery and three T-55 tanks.

Finally, in late May 2001 the ARM launched a new large offensive in northern Macedonia, concentrating on targets in the Mt. Popova Sapka, near Tetovo. On 22 May a group of 15 insurgents and an ammunition depot were detected by Mi-24, and subsequently exposed to heavy air-, artillery-, and infantry attacks, in which supposedly all the Albanians were killed. More clashes followed as the ARM subsequently attacked additional villages nearby, where the rebels were well dug-in and also had short supply routes into Kosovo. This offensive caused thousands of Albanian civilians to leave their homes and take refuge behind the border as well. The rebels contend that those who have remained did so because they wanted to express solidarity with the militants: this statement was in part confirmed by the ARM spokesman Trendafilov, who reported that some 1.000 civilians remained in the besieged village of Otlje, while 6.000 others were in Lipkovo. However, the NLA was this time swift to regroup: when the ARM failed to deliver the decisive blow the Macedonians found themselves under heavy pressure and were forced to retreat towards Tetovo and Skopje. During the retreat a number of government troops was killed and – worst yet – the Albanians captured also a number of flak-vests that were supplied to the ARM only days before from the UK. By 6 June the rebels were already attacking Tetovo, killing six troops there, and then advancing to less than five kilometres from Macedonia’s second largest city, Kumanovo, prompting the Belgian government to order a relocation of its KFOR logistic base to a safer site elsewhere.

At 05:00hrs on 8 June the ARM launched a fierce counterattack in the Matejce area, supported by helicopters and T-55 tanks. According to rebel sources three civilians were killed when Mi-24s strafed Otlja village, and others were injured when a house in Lipkovo was hit. Also hit – by a new appearance: Sukhoi Su-25 fighter-bombers – was the old monastery in Matejce, which was meanwhile under Albanian control.

A VViPVO ARM Mi-24 seen in action during the fighting in early June 2001. The helicopter is approaching at low level before jinking to a new level for the actual attack. (via ACIG.org Forum)

The ARM deployed some 30 T-55s into an attack on Slupcane and Matejce, but this attack was eventually brought to a still-stand as well. Then it was the turn on NLA: four days later, on 10 June 2001, the rebels captured Aravinovo, on the outskirts of Skopje, but on the following day both sides announced a cease-fire.

Su-25s and New Order of Battle VViPVO

The ceasefire on 11 June came just fours day after the first two Sukhoi Su-25s were delivered from the Ukraine. Two other Sukhois followed sometimes between 12 and 15 June. In total, the VViPVO acquired three Su-25s and a single Su-25UB. Originally, their delivery was slanted already for April or May, but the Macedonians considered the Mi-24s to be more effective and important for their war-fighting capabilities, and this should have been the reason why were two additional Mi-24s supplied instead. Subsequently, after the fighting in early June, there was a conclusion that Sukhois might not be a bad decision after all. By the time eight pilots and a number of ground personnel have already completed their two-months long training in the Ukraine.

The arrival of additional equipment caused a reorganization of the VViPVO, and by the end of the summer 2001 it was organized as follows:

* Petrovec Air Base

* Vazduhoplovna Brigada (Aviation Brigade, no numerical prefix), consisting of:

- 101. Avijacijska Eskadrila (Aviation Squadron) with 4 Su-25s

- 201. Protiv-Oklopna Helikopterska Eskadrila (Anti-Tank Helicopter Squadron), 12 Mi-24Vs (later reinforced by two Mi-24Ks)

- 301. Transportna-Helikopterska Eskadrila (Transport Helicopter Squadron), operating 6 Mi-8MTs and 3 Mi-17-1Vs

- 401. Skolsko-Trenazna Eskadrila (Training Squadron), operating two UH-1s and three Zlin 242 training aircraft.

"306" was one of four Mi-8s supplied from the Ukraine in spring of 2001. These helicopters were regularly deployed not only as transports but also for machine-gun and rocket-attacks against NLA. (Artwork by Tom Cooper)

The VViPVO boasted 1.700 personnel at the time (including up to 1.000 conscripts), and included also an early warning, surveillance and radar control regiment (“Pold VNJIN”, including one Air Defence Operations Centre with one Marconi S600 radar)), one air defense regiment with 20mm AA-guns and one air defence regiment equipped with SAM-13s (supplied from the Ukraine) with a total of ten air defence batteries.

With Su-25s at hand, the ARM felt strong enough to end the truce. On the early morning of 23 June Macedonians started a new offensive against NLA in Aracinovo, putting the place under heavy artillery barrage and air strikes. Initially the operation started when a group of around a dozen of Albanian fighters attempted to reach the village, but eventually it turned out into a full-scale attack that resulted – according to Macedonian sources – with destruction of nine bunkers, six machine-gun nests, two mortar points, one command post, one weapons- and ammunition depot. In response to the NLA threat to "stage assaults against Skopje with the airport, oil refineries and police stations as the main targets”, the Macedonians put Aracinovo under intense attacks of Mi-24s, Su-25s, and BM-21 and artillery barrage. The operations were so intensive that one of the Su-25s took off just a minute before a biz-jet carrying the then EU Foreign Affairs chief Javier Solana was landing at Petrovec: the Sukhoi swooped so low over the biz-jet, that the passengers felt their aircraft tremble under the shock-wave. Only two minutes later the same Su25 delivered a bomb- and rocket-attack on Aracinovo.

By 24th the ARM infantry recovered roughly one third of Aracinovo. The advance was slow and methodical, and supported by all available heavy weapons, so that there were only 19 injured troops, even if one policeman subsequently died of his wounds. The guerrillas, who resisted fiercely in Aracinovo, in response threatened to target the capital and indeed attacked a police check-point in the village of Vorce, wounding five members of the security forces. For a moment it appeared that the ARM was in a complete disarray, quite short of collapse... Surprisingly, only a day later both sides announced a ceasefire, which was subsequently extended until 27 June.

VViPVO Su-25 "121" was the first out of four Su-25s supplied to Macedonia from the Ukraine. In combat service they were usually armed with two UB-32-57 rocket launchers on inner underwing pylons of each wing (stations 4,5, 7 and 8), and two FAB-250 bombs calibre 250kg on two outboard underwing pylons each (stations 2, 3, 9, and 10). The smaller outboard pylons (stations 1 and 11) were either left empty or - on the starboard wing - used for carriage of R-60s. Why were the later needed remains unknown: the Albanians are not know to have used any kind of aircraft or helicopters. Of other weapons for Su-25s in Macedonian arsenal noticed were also FAB-100 bombs (usually four would be carried on a single MBD3-U6-68 MER on stations 9 and 3), BETAB-500 CBU-containers, RB- or PB-500 bombs, and six-shot launchers for B-8 unguided rockets. Of course, the aircraft were supplied togeter with PTB-800 drop tanks, but the later were seldom used because of short ranges to the battlefield. The sole Macedonian Su-25UB (c/n 13522) was serialled "120", while the three single-seaters are "121", "122", and "123". (Artwork by Tom Cooper)

Road to Peace

The new cease-fire was of local nature and arranged by Javier Solana. The terms of this included a evacuation of Albanian fighters from the village under international supervision. However, it was a local cease-fire: on 1 June the NLA captured four additional villages, prompting fierce ARM counter-attacks, all supported by Mi-24s and Su-25s. The situation was now about to culminate: if the Macedonians would prove unable to bring the rebels under control, it was almost certain that they would lose the war – regardless of all the equipment the Ukraine could have supplied.

Once again the fighting was stopped by a NATO & EU brokered cease-fire, on 5 June. Both sides used the break to re-supply and regroup their forces, but the truce held well into July – until on 25th the NLA attacked again in the Tetovo area, causing thousands of Macedonians to leave their homes. Eventually even the strategically important highway from Serbia to Skopje was cut by early August, when – despite intensive negotiations between the NATO and the Albanians – the fiercest fighting so far was raging throughout northern Macedonia. The ARM eventually checked Albanian attacks, at great cost for both sides, and on 5 August Solana announced that a new agreement on cease-fire, about increasing Albanian representation in the police, and the use of Albanian language in the public was reached under heavy pressure from the EU and NATO. With this the way was open for durable peace, concluded by a signing of a treaty of Ohrid, on 13 August 2001. Although by the time the Macedonians were furious – then on 10 August eight Macedonian policemen were killed when their vehicle struck two land mines outside Skopje, and on 12 August government killed five Albanians in a special-forces raid - on 13 August the NLA agreed to surrender its weapons under NATO supervision and on condition of amnesty for its fighters – excluding those suspected for war crimes.

By the time over 100 Macedonians and Albanians were killed in fighting and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has estimated that over 100.000 civilians were forced to leave their homes, of which over 70.000 fled to Kosovo.

Full Service

A characteristic of this war was the swift delivery of a considerable amount of equipment from the Ukraine to Macedonia. The cooperation between the two countries was established already in 1999, when a treaty about military cooperation was signed. The good mutual relationship was deepened through a series of meetings between top officials during the following years, and was eventually to culminate in 2002, when the Ukrainians established a tank-servicing centre in Macedonia. Under international pressure the Ukraine subsequently officially stopped military cooperation, but by the time the ARM was so well equipped it was barely in condition to support all the newly-acquired hardware.

How close was the relationship between the two countries in 2001 was at best illustrated by swift deliveries of new equipment for VViPVO. After the first two Mi-24s, delivered on 23 March, two additional examples arrived on 15 April, and four on 15 June. Out of these, the first eight Mi-24s were supplied without being overhauled at the Aviakont repair facility in Konotop before delivery, but it appears that this was the case with all the subsequent examples.

For the Macedonians this was reasonably good: without surprise they found it relatively easy to turn down several other interesting offers for fighter aircraft and helicopters, including those from Turkey and Taiwan (for Northrop F-5s), Bulgaria (MiG-21s) and the USA (F-16s), reportedly because these types would “not fit the budget”. Clearly, the cost of crew training, maintenance and operations of some of these older aircraft could easily cripple Macedonian finances, but the acquisition of Mi-24s and Su-25s from the Ukraine was not that much cheaper either.

What made the Ukrainian equipment interesting for Skopje was obviously that additional “service” Kiev was offering. The Ukrainians not only supplied additional aircraft and helicopters - and plenty of ammunition – as fast as they could, but were also extremely swift to organize and complete the training of Macedonian crews – and then added a full complement of mobile workshops and support equipment (supposedly at no charge!) and a wide selection of weapons as well. Of course, the equipment was supplied together with a number of “advisors”, which were contracted to fly the helicopters and aircraft to Macedonia and then to also take care about its proper maintenance and training of VViPVO crews in country for periods between six and 12 months. Interestingly, the Ukrainians flew only a very small number of combat sorties on VViPVO helicopters and Sukhois: most of the time they have left the fighting to the Macedonians. Despite the much claimed Slavic brotherhood, the Ukrainians were not only far more interested in collecting their pay than getting killed in a fight against the Albanians. Otherwise, they definitely provided the “full service” for their Macedonian customers: after all, such operations were nothing new to the Ukrainians, then they provided a similar type of service for Sri Lanka and Eritrea in the late 1990s

Aside from the Ukraine the Macedonian government was bolstering the ARM by arms acquisitions from other sources as well. One of these was Croatia, which previously was supplying weapons to Albanians. In April 2001 an agreement for arms and ammunition was reached with Croatian company RH Alan, worth $16 million, and two chartered Ukrainian Ilushin Il-76 transports were used to fly in the weapons from Pula, in Croatia, to Macedonia: local media reported a total of 15 nocturnal flights. The third main weapons supplier became Bulgaria, which was foremost donating heavy weapons, like T-55 tanks, and APCs. The Ukraine remained most important: by September 2001 in several additional agreements, the Macedonians have sent 30 T-55s to the Ukraine for refurbishment, while purchasing 31 T-72 tanks in addition to trucks, off-road vehicles, more artillery pieces, radars and numerous other items. Simultaneously, four additional Mi-24Vs were acquired as well, followed by two Mi-24K reconnaissance helicopters, delivered in December. By the end of the year the VViPVO thus had a total of 12 Mi-24Vs, two Mi-24Ks, six Mi-8Ts, three Mi-17-1Vs, four Bell UH-1s, and three Zlin 242Ls in service, while four additional Mi-24Vs were on order.

VViPVO Mi-8 seen armed with UB-32-57 rocket launchers and underway to another attack. These helicopters saw extensive use in all kinds of operations through 2001. (via ACIG.org Forum)

Interestingly, the UH-1Hs donated by Greece were – together with two Bell 206 Jet Rangers - almost exclusively used in support of the so-called “Tiger-Brigade” – actually barely a company-strong element of the police, but usually claimed to be one of a number of “special-purpose” units Macedonians developed during the spring and summer of 2001. In the press many such units were mentioned time and again, but the fact was that actually any ARM or a Military Police, or Police unit that was completely manned by professional soldiers was considered as “elite” and “special” unit. For example the “Volci” (“Wolves”) was an Army unit, recognizable in terrain by their BTR-80 APCS and US-supplied Hummer jeeps. Volci was actually a quick reaction infantry battalion based in Stip and had no other “special” training, but that they were on a permanent alert and able to scramble into action on short notice. Another similar unit was “Skorpije” (“Scorpions”), an infantry battalion also based in Stip, but consisting of a mixture of career soldiers and conscripts regularly trained with NATO-units based in Macedonia in peacekeeping operations, for which they operated German-supplied BTR-70 APCs. The already mentioned “Tigrovi” was actually a police unit trained for counter-terrorist operations. Although considered “elite”, they were actually lightly armed and during the war against the NLA they several times suffered considerably when facing heavily armed enemy. “Tigrovi” also lacked trained men, and therefore frequently had to be reinforced by the members of ARM’s “Volci”. But, they were under command of the Macedonian Interior Minister, Boskovski – a person typical for the Macedonian political leadership of the time, known for his arrogant and often enough brutal behaviour, as well as amateurish leadership, who reportedly still had Croatian citizenship in 2001!

Eventually, there was only one “elite” or “special” unit in Macedonia, but – interestingly enough – nothing was ever written about it, and it was never officially announced. This unit was set up in 1993 and 1994 by a former member of the French Foreign Legion, with idea being to train a small force similar to the British SAS, capable of recce and commando operations behind enemy lines. In 2001 this unit had between 35 and 40 personnel, organized in six-men teams, mostly ex-military, but some also ex-police-officers, trained as paras but not in anti-terrorist or urban warfare tactics. The exact background of this unit remains unknown: according to some reports it supposedly was “hidden” within the “Skorpije”, while others said it was actually a battalion of military police.

During the spring and summer of 2001 Macedonian media was full of reports about additonal "special forces" and "élite" units. Most of these, however, were considered as such mainly because being exclusively manned by professional soldiers. The few special units of ARM and Police that were really existing were found not suitable for COIN war against heavily equipped NLA fighters. (Photo: Macedonian MoD)

Mi-24 Tactics

During their operations in spring and summer of 2001 the VViPVO Mi-24s were frequently seen deploying large amounts of flares against possible attacks by shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles. Despite an excellent camouflage the Mi-24s were deploying such amounts of flares that any camouflage effects were minimal: concealment was not of great importance in this war, however. In fact, the flares were ejected automatically, at certain intervals and in automatic modes. The purpose of such ejection patterns was not to distract any incoming missiles, but to prevent a launcher from obtaining a lock-on in the first place by constantly drawing attention away from the helicopter. Additionally, all VViPVO Mi-24s were equipped with EVU-like IR-suppressors mounted over engine exhausts. Namely, on 11 May the KFOR peacekeepers seized a number of Igla MANPADS (ASCC-Code SA-18 Grouse) in Kosovo. This was a potentially highly dangerous development then by the time the ARM was heavily dependent on support from the VViPVO’s Mi-24-fleet, which was meanwhile increased to six. By the time the NLA-fighters learned to fear the Macedonian attack helicopters, and they were desperate to acquire some kind of effective defence of them. They were already successful in getting 9K11 Malyutka (ASCC-Code AT-3 Sagger) anti-tank guided missiles, but these were never deployed during the fighting in Macedonia.

Otherwise, there was no special tactics in deployment of VViPVO Hinds: they would approach at low level and speed between the Macedonian hills – sometimes flying in pairs – then pop up to only 200-300 meters and fire their weapons before swiftly exiting the area. Clearly, their opponents had plenty of time to react, but resistance was minimal and no helicopter was ever seriously damaged. If the NLA was indeed armed with MANPADs the Albanians could have caused some losses but this was not the case, and consequently this kind of operations was rather dangerous for helicopters and their crews, than anything else.

A typical sight of a Macedonian Mi-24 ("205") was like this, helicopter firing machine-guns while dispensing flares. The capture of several KLA's SA-7s by KFOR-troops in Kosovo obviously pointed at the possibility of NLA getting such weapons as well. Taking nothing for granted Macedonian pilots were deploying large numbers of flares during each of their attacks. (via ACIG.org Forum)

Essential Harvest

Finally, on 13 August a NATO-sponsored ceasefire was reached between the government and the NLA. Shortly before the ceasefire between the Macedonian government and Albanian rebels was signed fierce fighting broke out again around Tetovo and only several kilometres away from Skopje, with rebels threatening to bring the battle also into the capital. The VViPVO responded almost immediately by a number of air strikes, strafing and rocketing rebel positions in several places.

Meanwhile, in accordance with the agreement between the government and rebels, the NATO launched the Operation “Essential Harvest”, with the task of disarming the NLA. The first NATO troops arrived in Macedonia on 16 August. They were 400 soldiers of a British advance party, which set up headquarters in Skopje. Once in Macedonia the NATO troops prepared between 15 and 20 collection points at which the NLA could deliver weapons on voluntary basis. The operation was initially quite successful, and within the first week the rebels delivered no less but 3.996 arms of all sorts (including three T-55s of the 115th Brigade, at Radusha, and two M-60 APCs of the 114th Brigade, based in Nikustak). Also, positions of some 6.000 mines identified.

In the course of this NATO-controlled process the NLA was legalized, being renamed into “Protective Corps of Kosovo”. By end of August there were already 4.000 NATO troops in Macedonia, including 1.000 British, 700 Italians, 500 Germans, 410 Greeks, 300 Spaniards, 250 Dutch, 118 Czechs, 89 Belgians, 40 Norwegians, and 31 Hungarians. In addition, there were 530 French, as well as supporting cells from several KFOR-contingents, including additional Germans, but also Austrians and Swiss. As could be expected, the operation saw a significant use of transport aircraft, including RAF Boeing C-17As and French Transall C.160Rs, while some contingents have brought also own helicopters, including three Lynx AH.7s (which were based at Petrovec AB). The US still kept their detachment at Camp Able Sentry, near Skopje, which had own UH-60L MEDEVAC-helicopters, as well as some CH-47Ds of the 101st Airborne Division.

Although the Essential Harvest was to last only 30 days, the NATO-troops remained in Macedonia, then there were not only additional skirmishes between the ARM and the NLA in August and through September 2001. Nevertheless, even three years after the war ended the tensions between Macedonians and ethnic Albanians remain high – even if outbreak of a new war is not very likely.

Since the end of the war the VViPVO is suffering from lack of funding: in 2002 the whole air force was on strike for a number of days after their pays were not forthcoming! During the summer Mi-17s and Mi-8s are frequently used for different "civilian" tasks, including fire-fighting with help of adapted equipment - as seen here. (Photo: Macedonian MoD)

Sources & Bibliography

Except through own research, additional details for this article were gathered from:

- CRS Report for Congress, by Julie Kim (Specialist in International Relations; Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division), The Library of Congress, November 2001

- "Air Forces of Former Yugoslavia 1991-1999, Part Two: Slovenia & Macedonia", Insignia Air Force Specials

- Different posts on ACIG.org Forum

© Copyright 2002-3 by ACIG.org

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