Macedonian lawmakers take ‘historic’ step to back peace plan |

Macedonian lawmakers take ‘historic’ step to back peace plan


SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) – Macedonia’s peace process passed a vital test in parliament Thursday to set the peace plan’s next steps in motion – NATO gathering more weapons from ethnic Albanian rebels and legislative debate on new minority rights.

The NATO side appears easy. The insurgents offered no objections to surrendering more weapons, and the arms gathering could resume Friday after a weeklong break during the marathon parliament proceedings.

But the struggle isn’t over in the wood-paneled parliament chamber. Lawmakers must now deal with 36 specific constitutional amendments for greater political and language rights for ethnic Albanians, who constitute about a third of Macedonia’s 2 million people.

”This is only the first step,” said legislator Radmila Secerinksa after parliament backed the general framework of the peace accord. ”The hardest part lies ahead.”

It took six days of sharp-tongued bickering, patriotic grandstanding and stop-and-go political maneuvers to arrive at the peace plan vote: 91-19 with two abstentions. It needed 80 votes in the 120-seat assembly.

Rejection would have toppled the entire Western-brokered accord seeking to end the six-month-old conflict.

”This vote was by those who believe in the future of Macedonia,” ethnic Albanian leader Arben Xhaferi told The Associated Press.

The West reacted positively. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States was encouraging ”all of Macedonia’s political leaders and its people to help build on this momentum for peace and to move forward with the next step.” German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer called it important for ”the stabilization of Macedonia.” NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson said it brought Macedonia ”back from the brink of war.”

The Western alliance immediately began talks with the rebels for a site to restart the weapons collection, said NATO spokesman Maj. Barry Johnson.

NATO has already taken more than a third of the 3,300-piece arsenal to be surrendered by the National Liberation Army, or NLA, by late this month. NATO plans to collect another third, or about 1,100, in the next phase.

Macedonian Defense Minister Vlado Buckovski told the AP there is ”evidence the process of disbanding the NLA is under way.”

The final cache of rebel weapons will not be taken until after parliament backs the constitutional changes. The debate, scheduled to begin within 10 days, could be a replay of the raw emotions in the latest session.

Many deputies characterized the accord as political robbery, with the principles of their decade-old nation taken at the barrel of rebel guns. NATO and Western powers overseeing the pact were derided as accomplices.

”Whoever kills the heart and soul of Macedonia will be eternally damned,” barked opposition deputy Stojan Popov.

In the end, however, some of those who denounced the deal voted in its favor. The international pressure – and the prospect of a windfall of foreign aid to the struggling nation – was too huge to ignore.

Just hours after the vote, European Union envoy Chris Patten predicted that the decision would help boost EU aid and encourage pledges at upcoming donor conferences.

”People want to live in a stable and democratic country,” he said after arriving in Skopje.

The EU has already put together $27 million to repair damage caused by the recent fighting and is considering speeding up the handover of an additional $44 million package to bolster state finances.

But it cannot buy guarantees of stability as the accord points take effect.

It calls for an amnesty for demobilized rebels, excluding those who could face war crimes prosecution. A conflict could erupt over the fate of the rebel leader, Ali Ahmeti, if peace prevails.

Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski told AP the amnesty would never extend to ”the terrorist Ahmeti.”

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