Ethnic Albanian leaders voice major objections to Western-backed peace plan in Macedonia |

Ethnic Albanian leaders voice major objections to Western-backed peace plan in Macedonia

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) – Ethnic Albanian politicians expressed serious objections Sunday to a new Western-backed peace plan for Macedonia. Their comments came on the eve of talks to help end an ethnic Albanian insurgency here that has threatened to develop into civil war.

The ethnic Albanian leaders did not outright reject the draft, which is meant to reconcile Macedonia’s majority Slavs and minority ethnic Albanians. The parties meet Monday to negotiate.

”We have serious objections to the proposed document,” said Zehir Bekteshi, a spokesman for the ethnic Albanian Party for Democratic Prosperity. ”But this is only a draft version, it is not something final that could be immediately accepted or rejected,” he told The Associated Press.

European Union envoy Francois Leotard emphasized that the plan was a just a beginning in the quest to reach a negotiated settlement to end the rebel’s four-month insurgency.

”It is the basis for further negotiations. Now, we need to have … comments and amendments to this document,” Leotard said Saturday.

The plan is based on a proposal by French constitutional expert Robert Badinter, who 10 years ago proposed that the former Yugoslav republic become an independent country.

American envoy James Pardew called the draft a ”comprehensive framework” arising from the input of local and international experts to Badinter’s proposal.

The leaders of Macedonian Slav and ethnic Albanian parties agreed Saturday that the framework will form the single negotiating document – meaning that all previous peace plans are off the table, a Western diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

He stressed the need to reach agreement quickly to preserve a NATO-mediated cease-fire that extended into its third day on Sunday with only sporadic gunfire and no casualties. Just last week the country appeared on the brink of full-fledged civil war.

Meanwhile, more than 1,000 displaced civilians, mostly ethnic Albanians, returned from neighboring Kosovo on Sunday. An estimated 4,000 refugees had returned since the truce took effect midnight Thursday.

Macedonian Foreign Minister Ilinka Mitreva, who returned from a trip to Brussels, Belgium, told reporters Sunday that she would travel to the United States on July 11 and meet with Secretary of State Colin Powell.

She said she had received assurances from the European Union that it would follow the United States in banning travel and financial support for those ethnic Albanians involved in the insurgency.

Details of the Western-backed plan have been withheld – but it is likely to be a compromise solution between Albanian demands and the majority’s fear that changes would ultimately lead to a breakup of Macedonia.

Ethnic Albanians have been seeking better representation in public institutions, expanded official use of the Albanian language and a veto power in parliament. Currently, Albanian parties hold 25 seats in the 120-seat legislature.

Agreement on institutional reforms and other measures to ensure greater rights for the Albanian minority are preconditions for the next critical phase: deployment of NATO forces to disarm the rebels. Though rebels are not involved in negotiations, they are expected to disarm if ethnic Albanian political leaders reach a deal.

Macedonian state television said late Sunday that rebels launched an attempt to capture the Slav village of Lesok north of Tetovo. Police sent in additional troops. The report was not immediately confirmed by the government or by international observers.

Macedonian radio reported two incidents overnight – a rebel attack on a police checkpoint near the border crossing of Jazince, about 20 miles north of Tetovo, and a sniper attack on government forces near the village of Slupcane in the Kumanovo region.

AP-WS-07-08-01 1756EDT

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