Macedonian rivals sign peace deal |

Macedonian rivals sign peace deal

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) – Hoping to end six months of bloody conflict, Macedonia’s feuding factions signed a landmark peace deal Monday that clears the way for U.S. and other NATO troops to launch the daunting mission of disarming ethnic Albanian rebels.

The success of the accord, however, depends on a durable cease-fire, and the rebels were not a party to the talks that produced the deal. Soon after the signing, clashes erupted on the border with Kosovo and near the second-largest city of Tetovo between rebels and troops, police said. It was not known how the fighting began.

Political leaders from the Balkan country’s Macedonian majority and ethnic Albanian minority formally endorsed the agreement, which gives ethnic Albanians a larger share of power in the police ranks, parliament and education. The accord has yet to be ratified by parliament.

NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson, who attended the signing ceremony, said he hopes the alliance would move ”very quickly indeed” on the plan to send in 3,500 troops, including Americans, to disarm the rebels.

But, he said, NATO would only do so with a ”durable cease-fire” in place and if rebels clearly commit to handing over their arms – reflecting concerns of the alliance getting dragged into another Balkan conflict.

He later flew back to Brussels, Belgium, where he briefed NATO’s ambassadors in a special late-night session that lasted into the early hours of Tuesday.

Meanwhile, 15 allied military experts flew to Skopje to finalize a plan for disarming the ethnic Albanian rebels.

The rebels were not involved in the negotiations that led to the peace deal and did not sign the document Monday. A senior rebel commander known only as Shpati told Kosovo Television on Monday that the rebels would respect the accord, though some other commanders have expressed pessimism.

The deal is ”a remarkable moment for the history of Macedonia … that returned it from the brink of civil war,” Robertson said. ”This is a major step forward for the return of the country to the mainstream Europe.”

He and European Union envoy Javier Solana watched as President Boris Trajkovski and the leaders of the four largest parties, two ethnic Albanian and two Macedonian, signed the accord. The mediators in the tough negotiations – James Pardew of the United States and Francois Leotard of France – also signed the 15-page document at Trajkovski’s residence.

NATO’s British-led mission, dubbed Operation Essential Harvest, could start within days and would last for a month. It would include troops from the United States, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Greece, Netherlands, Norway, Turkey, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

There is a risk that NATO soldiers could be caught in the crossfire if hostilities resume after NATO begins deploying troops. And with anti-Western sentiment rising, they could come under attack from both ethnic groups.

The U.N. Security Council met Monday and endorsed the peace deal, calling for all parties to abide by it.

President Bush praised the signing. ”But now they need to lay down their arms so we can implement” the deal, he said at his ranch in Texas.

”This is not only a political agreement, but an agreement for peace,” Trajkovski said after signing, urging all citizens of Macedonia to ”sincerely and honestly carry out what the agreement envisages.”

The militants launched their insurgency in February, saying they sought more rights for ethnic Albanians, who account for about a third of Macedonia’s population of 2 million. The Macedonian government contends the rebels simply want to seize territory.

Sources close to the talks said the signing ceremony was postponed for over an hour because of bickering over an ethnic Albanian demand that the accord spell out amnesty for all rebels who did not commit war crimes during the fighting. The demand was accepted.

The agreement makes the Albanian language official where ethnic Albanians comprise more than 20 percent of population and gives broader authority to local governments, essentially awarding a degree of self-rule to predominantly ethnic Albanian areas. It also ensures proportional representation of minorities in the Constitutional Court, which has the final say in legislative matters, as well as in the government and police.

Arben Xhaferi, the leader of the Democratic Party of Albanians, the largest ethnic Albanian party, irked Macedonians by addressing local journalists in Albanian after the signing.

”I use my right from the agreement to address you in Albanian,” he said, pledging ”sincere respect and implementation of the agreement, which represents the message of peace.”

Trajkovski called it ”a small provocation,” and warned Xhaferi that the agreement still has to be formally ratified in Macedonia’s parliament to become valid. International mediators said the legislature has to ratify the agreement within 45 days.

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