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Once again, there is the threat of war in the Balkans. This time, Macedonia is at risk. Once again, Albanian guerrillas are to blame. Their aim is to redraw the borders of the region. There is no need. They can be stopped; to avoid a wider war, the West should do just that.

Macedonia has, despite its mix of ethnic groups, escaped the wars that ravaged the former Yugoslavia during the past decade. A few weeks ago, however, Albanian guerrillas commenced attacks along the border Macedonia shares with Kosovo. The fighting has since spread to villages in the mountains above Tetovo, the tiny nation’s second largest city.

The rebels serve in what they call the National Liberation Army, and claim to be fighting for the rights of ethnic Albanians, who make up between one-quarter to one-third of Macedonia’s population. They insist that their forces are made up of local Albanians; in other words, the insurgency is homegrown. The Macedonian government believes the bulk of the NLA, which is said to have roughly 2,000 troops, comes from Kosovo. The similarity between NLA uniforms and those of the Kosovo Liberation Army — there is no difference — lends credence to that view. The government also believes, as do Western officials, that the rebels want to detach a large area of northern Macedonia along with the Presevo Valley of Yugoslavia to create a Greater Albania.

Redrawing the map of Southern Europe does not make sense. Macedonia is not Kosovo, where native Albanians had experienced harsh Serb repression. Like Bosnia, Macedonia is a multiethnic state that is capable of working out its problems peacefully. Albanian political parties are members of the coalition government in Skopje, the nation’s capital. They have also condemned the violence.

The NLA does not seem to care. The rebel attacks on Tetovo forced a government ultimatum: The guerrillas had to withdraw or face a full-scale attack. The NLA rejected the plea, and declared its own unilateral ceasefire. The government responded with artillery fire and is preparing an even heavier attack. Western officials, including EU foreign affairs head Javier Solana, have supported a proportionate military response to “the terrorists.”

This spiral of violence plays into the rebel hands. While Macedonia’s Albanians may not support the NLA, they are not happy with the government’s response either. They feel marginalized in the decision-making process and worry that heightened conflict will drive a wedge between the country’s Slavic and Albanian communities. There are also doubts about the Macedonian Army’s ability to mount an effective offensive against the rebels. A protracted conflict would play into the NLA’s hands, as would a heavy-handed response that would help the rebels win international sympathy.

There is another solution to this problem. NATO could take steps to seal off the border and prevent Albanian forces from waging war against Macedonia. That option makes the most sense, especially since NATO troops are already deployed in the region. The U.N. Security Council has called on NATO forces in Kosovo to step up their efforts to block arms going into Macedonia.

Unfortunately, NATO governments, and the United States in particular, are skittish about getting more involved in the conflict. They worry that their citizens will not tolerate casualties. Before his election, U.S. President George W. Bush said that he wanted to reduce the U.S. military presence in the Balkans. While his administration has tried to reassure Europeans that a unilateral withdrawal is not in the works, the U.S. has ruled out any increase in its troop presence, as have the French and British governments. They are prepared to provide Macedonia with training, intelligence and military equipment, but those are long-term solutions and the NLA is unlikely to give its opponents time to get up to speed.

NATO’s reluctance to get deeper involved in the Balkans is understandable. The record of the last decade is an ugly one. But there is another lesson from those bloody years that is more important still. Surrendering the initiative is a dangerous mistake. Hunkering down is not a viable solution. Digging in will only make a target of peacekeepers. Worse, it lets the guerrillas dictate the time and pace of conflict.

The experience of Bosnia and Kosovo shows that forceful action can save lives. Procrastination will only make a bad situation worse.

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