SKOPJE, Macedonia — Pamphlets emblazoned with a lion symbolizing a group calling itself Paramilitary 2000 delivered a powerful threat to ethnic Albanian shopkeepers: Close shop or we'll burn down your businesses.
Most stall owners in and around the trash-strewn industrial wasteland called Madzari packed up and left after receiving the threat 10 days ago from the recently activated paramilitary group, which considers some Albanians who arrived in the past few years illegal residents of Macedonia.
The emergence of paramilitary threats in the capital, Skopje — a direct response to the insurgents' assault on neighboring Aracinovo and evident in riots outside Parliament last week — brings a new escalation to Macedonia's conflict between ethnic Albanian militants and government troops in this troubled Balkan country.
Immediately following the threat, rebel Commander Hoxha announced that his forces in the hills surrounding the capital were prepared to defend Albanians in Skopje if they came under attack. That spread unease among the Slav population.
The Albanian businessmen of the Madzari district say they have been menaced by a black jeep with the Paramilitary 2000 logo, but so far there have been no direct confrontations or violence. But they also say Macedonian police have refused to protect them.
"The police said that all Albanians who work here should remove their stock and leave the area," shopowner Ibrahim Baftjari said. He has remained, but has removed his most expensive goods.
Since the threat, up to 30,000 Albanians, mostly from Skopje, have left for Kosovo, bringing the number of refugees who have taken refuge in the Serbian province to 100,000 since the insurgency began four months ago.
It is a pattern that has repeated itself in more than a decade of Balkan conflicts: Irregular units form in response to dissatisfaction with military and police action against an insurgency.
Western observers worry that the slightest spark — a slain policeman or Macedonian Slav civilian — could lead to full-blown civil war.
They cite not only the new irregular units but also the vast number of armed reservists. Already, reservists were blamed last week by President Boris Trajkovski for bringing the country to the brink of civil war when, massed outside Parliament, they opened fire amid a crowd of Macedonian Slavs enraged at the rebels' safe passage from Aracinovo under U.S. escort.
"There's a coalescence of different extremist elements into more formal networks," said Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch. "We're talking about a region where there's a pattern of civilians involved in conflicts."
The government denies the existence of any irregular paramilitary organization in Macedonia. Off the record, a government source dismissed the Paramilitary 2000 as "a bunch of drunks who number no more than 20 people," and estimated the total number of paramilitary fighters at "no more than 200."
The real threat, the source said, is from reservists who have been issued arms by the Interior Ministry, like those outside Parliament last week. Not all the guns were given to people on the reservist list, the source said, and some were distributed specifically to members of the ruling government party.
But bigger questions remain: Who controls these armed militias and reservists, and how much crossover exists between them?
So far, very little is known about who comprises the newly emerging armed groups. In a communique two weeks ago, Paramilitary 2000 said its 2,000 fighters included members of Army special forces units — the Tigers, the Wolves and the Scorpions — as well as mercenaries.
There are other groups operating as well, including the National Front of Macedonia and the Todor Aleksandrov, named for a 20th-century patriot, as well as clubs of football hooligans boasting paramilitary structures.
Following a pattern some fear will spread to Skopje and other cities, Western and government sources say police officers were among gangs that destroyed Albanian businesses and targeted the homes of prominent Albanians in Bitola in May after four policemen from the southern city were killed. The home of the deputy health minister, Muharrem Nexhipi, an ethnic Albanian, was among those targeted.
Deputy Interior Minister Refet Elmazi, who is an ethnic Albanian, says neither the prime minister nor the interior ministers — both Slavs — expressed condolences, adding: "I guess that speaks a lot."
Polarization has already spread through government. Elmazi said recent events have made it difficult for him to perform his government role. Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski refused to give him details of the reservist call-up, including how many arms were distributed.
"It is important for the second person in the police to know what is happening," Elmazi said. "As deputy minister of the interior, I can tell you the Macedonians are playing a very secret game. They are not sharing information with other parties."