Macedonian leaders, rebels agree to cease-fire, clearing way to disarm rebels
SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) – Macedonian leaders and ethnic Albanian rebels agreed Thursday to an open-ended cease-fire, clearing the way for NATO troops to disarm the rebels and take steps to ensure a four-month insurgency does not engulf this Balkan nation in civil war.
The deal, brokered by NATO and European Union officials, was expected to ease tensions that have hampered a political agreement on ethnic Albanian demands for better protection of their rights.
”It is a major step forward,” said Nikola Dimitrov, national security adviser to President Boris Trajkovski. ”Of course it is not the end of the crisis, but it will create the conditions for political dialogue, and of course it is one of the conditions for disarmament to be realized.”
”We think and we hope this will bring peace to the Macedonian citizens,” he said.
The breakthrough comes amid intensified diplomacy by EU envoy Francois Leotard and his U.S. counterpart, James Pardew, and just a day after Trajkovski announced progress in political dialogue among the major Macedonian Slav and ethnic Albanian political parties. The dialogue had stalled after rioting early last week.
U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher welcomed the cease-fire.
”We believe it’s a very important and necessary step toward resolving the crisis in Macedonia. We urge the parties to fully honor the agreements that they negotiated with NATO and the European Union,” he said.
The midnight cease-fire deadline approached amid heavy fighting around Tetovo, a mostly Albanian city 20 miles west of the capital. Just hours after the deal was announced, the rebels rained shells and opened gunfire on police positions near the sports stadium in the city, striking houses. Eight civilians were injured, five seriously, with gunshot and shrapnel wounds, hospital director Raim Thaci said.
The government responded with maximum force, using tanks, warplanes and helicopter gunships to target rebel checkpoints around the neighboring villages of Poroj and Dzepciste, as well as suspected rebel positions in neighboring hills.
Each side accused the other of using the last hours before the cease-fire to try to improve its positions. The rebels claimed to control a road from a northern Tetovo neighborhood, near the stadium and Macedonian army barracks, north to a crossing with Kosovo, where they have established four check points.
Still, Commander Sokoli, an insurgent spokesman, said he believed his soldiers would respect the midnight deadline.
NATO wants to ensure the cease-fire is holding before sending troops to begin the difficult task of disarming the rebels, who have moved relatively freely through the mountainous northern region bordering the southern Yugoslav province of Kosovo. The so-called National Liberation Army drew heavily on forces from the now-disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army, which fought its own insurgency to throw off Serbian rule. The province is now under international administration.
NATO’s role ”has to be in what we call a benign and consensual environment,” said NATO spokesman Paul Barnard in Skopje. ”We are not here to enforce the disarmament.”
Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, speaking for U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, told reporters that NATO has not yet decided the time is right to begin the disarming effort, nor has the alliance assembled a force for that mission.
Still, he said the United States welcomed the cease-fire. ”We’re very, very pleased to see that, it’s a very important step,” he said. ”It just goes to what both the United States and many other nations have been saying, that indeed you need to have a political solution to this, not a military one.”
The final composition of the new NATO force has not been determined, but Barnard said British troops would lead the operation, working with Greek, Italian and French forces to collect the weapons, which are to be removed from the country and destroyed. U.S. troops would handle logistics, he said, without elaborating on whether that would be their only role or explaining what logistics entails.
Macedonian Defense Minister Vlado Buckovski said some 3,000 NATO troops from 15 nations would be deployed by mid-month and that the actual disarmament would begin two weeks later after collection sites are identified. The operation is expected to be completed in four to six weeks.
Macedonia’s chief of general staff, Pande Petrevski, signed a cease-fire document with NATO on Thursday in Skopje, and Ali Ahmeti, the rebel NLA’s political leader, signed a separate deal with NATO Wednesday evening in the southern Kosovo city of Prizren.
The cease-fires were signed separately because Macedonian leaders have refused to negotiate with the rebels, whom they consider terrorists with separatist aspirations.
The rebels indicated, however, that they would not disarm until a political agreement providing equality for Macedonia’s ethnic Albanian minority is reached.
”That is out of the question until the NLA demands are met. Only after that can we discuss weapons decommission,” said the insurgent spokesman, Commander Sokoli.
Buckovski, the defense minister, said the cease-fire creates conditions that could allow early parliamentary elections in November and amnesty for rebels who have not committed war crimes, once they have disarmed.
The elections seek to provide better proportional representation for the Albanian minority, who make up about a third of the country’s 2 million people but control only 25 seats in the 120-member national legislature.
On the Net:
Macedonia site, http://www.macedonia.org
Albanians in Macedonia Crisis Center, http://www.alb-net.com/amcc/
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