Macedonian troops hold fire past deadline for rebel surrender
SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) – Heeding Western calls for restraint, Macedonian government forces held their fire Thursday as a deadline passed for ethnic Albanian rebels holed up in northern villages to surrender.
Sporadic clashes that the army blamed on the militants were reported early Thursday, and a brief firefight erupted later. But the front line, near Macedonia’s border with Kosovo, remained generally quiet as the deadline passed at noon.
The restraint was in marked contrast with earlier government threats to ”eliminate” the insurgents unless they heeded the ultimatum.
Without saying outright that authorities were extending the deadline, President Boris Trajkovski issued a statement saying the deadline pressure on the rebels had accomplished positive results. He did not elaborate.
The government decision to back off from an all-out offensive came after intense international lobbying, generated by fears that fighting in Macedonia could spill over to neighboring countries.
NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson urged Macedonia’s new, multiethnic unity government to press ahead with reforms empowering the ethnic Albanian minority. This, he said, would ”undermine the political agenda of the gunmen.”
Ethnic Albanians make up about one-third of Macedonia’s 2 million people. The militants, who started operations in February, are demanding that Macedonia’s constitution be rewritten to upgrade their people’s minority status, but the government accuses them of trying to divide the country.
Robertson, speaking from neighboring Albania, promised further military aid to the Macedonian government, without offering specifics. The army over the past months has received training, intelligence and weapons from the alliance, but NATO insists it will not allow its peacekeeping troops in neighboring Kosovo to be drawn into the conflict.
Robertson also said he received a positive response from Trajkovski to his request for military restraint against the insurgents, to ”minimize the possibility of civilian casualties.”
Last week, all main political parties in Macedonia formed a unity government in an attempt to find a political solution to the crisis.
In another regional development, ethnic Albanian rebels agreed with representatives of Serbia, the main Yugoslav republic, to demilitarize a divided village on the edge of a buffer zone with Kosovo.
The deal to pull out from Lucane – a key village contested since November – came only days before Yugoslav troops are scheduled to return to the remaining part of the buffer zone separating Kosovo from the rest of Serbia.
The buffer zone was set up in mid-1999 by NATO to keep Yugoslav army troops at arm’s length from Kosovo’s NATO-led peacekeepers. NATO in recent weeks has allowed Yugoslav and Serb military units to slowly reclaim the zone and push out ethnic Albanian rebels.
The joint Serbian-Yugoslav force is scheduled to move into the last part of the zone May 24. Ahead of that, hundreds of rebels have been slipping from the buffer zone into Kosovo – NATO sources said over 100 entered on Thursday.
NATO-led peacekeepers handed out Albanian-language leaflets to people crossing into the buffer zone from Kosovo, often to visit family or friends.
”Are you tired of this business?” said one leaflet depicting a guerrilla holding his automatic rifle in a trench.
Not all the rebels are ready to give up. Police said a Yugoslav army captain was killed and several of his men were wounded in an attack in the buffer zone near the town of Vranje.
On the Net:
Macedonia site, http://www.macedonia.org
Albanians in Macedonia Crisis Center, http://www.alb-net.com/amcc/
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