Gunmen ambush interior minister’s convoy as peace talks to end conflict deadlock
OHRID, Macedonia (AP) – Gunmen ambushed Macedonia’s interior minister Sunday evening, spraying his convoy with bullets as he was on his way to visit refugees returning to their homes. No one was injured in the attack, which came as the country’s feuding leaders deadlocked in peace talks.
The attack occurred at about 6 p.m. on the main highway linking Skopje, the capital, to Tetovo, Macedonia’s second-largest city. The convoy carrying Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski and journalists with state-run television was just passing near the village of Grupcin.
Gunfire rang out from both sides of the highway near the village 15 miles west of Skopje, but Boskovski’s car managed to evade the gunmen. His guards returned fire in a gun battle that lasted about five minutes, state-run TV said.
The ambush happened as key government and ethnic Albanian leaders were engaged in a second day of peace talks in the southwestern city of Ohrid aimed at ending five bitter months of conflict between security forces and ethnic Albanian rebels.
In a statement, Boskovksi blamed the attack on the rebels and called on ”the police and the army to establish control over the entire Macedonian territory.”
”Not a single smart man can trust terrorists any longer,” he said. ”We have to prepare and be ready to regain lost territory. No one can allow terrorists to conquer parts of our land and to perform ethnic cleansing.”
Later Sunday evening, ethnic Albanian rebels based in the village of Gajre attacked army positions in the nearby village of Lavce, wounding four soldiers, two of them seriously, Defense Ministry spokesman Marjan Gjurovski said.
Despite the lingering threat of civil war and reports that ethnic Albanian rebels were regrouping, the rival parties remained deadlocked in their talks at a lakeside presidential retreat in Ohrid.
European Union envoy Francois Leotard, who is mediating the talks along with U.S. envoy James Pardew, said there was ”no progress yet” and that the talks would resume Monday.
Asked about progress Sunday, Pardew said only: ”Two words: not much.”
The attack on Boskovski dealt a major setback to the peace effort, a Western diplomat close to the negotiations told The Associated Press. ”The attack will clearly have a negative impact on the talks, because (Macedonian) nationalists will try to exploit it,” the diplomat said.
Sunday’s talks bogged down on highly contentious proposals to make Albanian an official language and let local mayors select their own police chiefs.
In an apparent concession to majority Macedonians, a compromise was on the table to make Albanian official only in areas where ethnic Albanians account for more than 20 percent of the population. Ethnic Albanians, however, were holding out for equal recognition.
”Our minimum request is for our language to be an official language on all levels – not only at the local level, because we will have administrative problems,” said Zjlcelal Hajdari, an ethnic Albanian.
The language dispute underscores the deep cultural differences between ethnic Albanians, who account for about a third of the Balkan country’s 2 million people, and Macedonians of Slavic origin. Ethnic Albanian rebels launched an insurgency in February, saying they were fighting for great rights and recognition for their people.
The Macedonian government alleges the rebels are linked to militants in neighboring Kosovo and has accused them of trying to carve out territory.
The Defense Ministry said rebels near Tetovo, Macedonia’s second-largest city, fired four mortars on an army barracks early Sunday but missed. It said there were sporadic minor clashes around Tetovo overnight and reports that the rebels were regrouping near the northern village of Vaksince.
Two civilians were killed Sunday when they stepped on a land mine in a northern village in an area that had been under rebel control, officials said.
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