European Union envoy says Macedonian parties will sign peace accord on Monday |

European Union envoy says Macedonian parties will sign peace accord on Monday

OHRID, Macedonia (AP) – Macedonia’s rival parties reached a tentative peace deal Wednesday, hours after the government reported 10 soldiers killed in a rebel ambush that may have forced negotiators to act before the crisis deteriorated into all-out civil war.

Macedonian and ethnic Albanian parties pledged to sign the agreement next week, European Union envoy Francois Leotard said. The killings as well as fighting in Tetovo, the second-largest city, had added a sense of urgency to the talks.

Though Leotard said the ”political process” will continue until Monday, when the accord would be signed, a top Macedonian political leader suggested participants had put their initials on a plan that was complete.

”The negotiations are finished,” said Radmila Secerinska, a top official of Social Democratic Alliance for Macedonia, the country’s second-largest Macedonian party.

The insurgents took up arms in February, saying they were fighting for greater rights for minority ethnic Albanians, who account for about a third of Macedonia’s 2 million people. The government has accused them of trying to seize territory and carve out an ethnic Albanian mini-state.

Since the ethnic Albanian rebels did not take direct part in the negotiations, it remains to be seen whether the agreement will hold, or be shattered by the fighting that has characterized previous Balkan wars in the former Yugoslavia.

Even after the announcement of a deal, Maceodnia’s security council suggested late Wednesday that force was still needed to win respect for a cease-fire. It was not immediately clear, however, whether the council intended to take any action.

The Western-designed peace plan grants the restive minority a greater role in police, parliament and education. Some 3,500 NATO soldiers will disarm the rebels, but only after the rival sides fully agree on the deal and meet certain conditions for the deployment.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said he was aware of the reports of a tentative deal, but said it was too soon to celebrate because ”we don’t count our chickens before they hatch.”

In addition to reaching a political agreement, he said, preconditions for NATO arrival included the maintenance of a cease-fire and a timetable for the weapons handover by the rebels.

Wednesday’s announcement came after a surge in attacks in the northwestern part of the country.

Rebels struck a convoy carrying soldiers about 10 miles outside of the capital, Skopje, on the road to Tetovo, which has been near the front lines of fighting, the government said. The ambush left 10 soldiers dead and three injured – the worst casualty toll in a single battle since the ethnic Albanians launched their insurgency six months ago.

Ethnic Albanian rebels denied responsibility for the attack. A senior ethnic Albanian commander, speaking on condition of anonymity, expressed ”regret” for the deaths of the soldiers. Still, he insisted, ”We haven’t attacked.”

Fighting continued into the afternoon, with army and police units and vehicles pinned down by rebel fire, a security source said on condition of anonymity. Government spokesman Antonio Milososki said the ”rebel offensive” cut off access to Tetovo.

Eyewitnesses in Tetovo said the southern part of the city had fallen to rebel control. The government did not immediately comment on the reports.

Private A1 TV reported that an ethnic Albanian was killed and two Macedonians – a man and his 2-year-old-daughter – were seriously injured in Wednesday’s skirmishes in Tetovo. The broadcaster claimed that the rebels were going house-to-house and forcing Macedonians to leave.

Several hundred Macedonians gathered in Skopje to protest the deaths of the soldiers. They chanted slogans against President Boris Trajkovski, set up barricades in the downtown areas close to the parliament and shattered some shop windows of businesses belonging to ethnic Albanians.

Dozens of protesters stormed the city hospital after reports that ethnic Albanian rebels were being treated there. The demonstrators withdrew after the learned that the reports were incorrect.

About 100 Macedonians, meanwhile, destroyed six ethnic Albanian shops and two houses in Prilep, the hometown of many of the slain soldiers, local Macedonian TV reported.

The demonstrators also set the mosque in Prilep on fire and prevented firefighters from putting out the blaze, the Belgrade-based Beta news agency said.

Ethnic Albanian political leaders have been negotiating on behalf of all ethnic Albanians. Still, it remains unclear whether the rebels will respect the tenets of the deal.

”We hope that peace is near,” the rebel commander said. ”We will be in the service of the peace.”

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