Macedonia’s government declares unilateral cease-fire ahead of peace signing |

Macedonia’s government declares unilateral cease-fire ahead of peace signing

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) – Macedonia’s government agreed Sunday to reinstate a cease-fire to pave the way for a peace accord, after troops backed by tanks and warplanes fought ethnic Albanian rebels on the outskirts of the capital and several other fronts.

President Boris Trajkovski ordered government forces to stop shooting at 7:30 p.m. ”to show good will and to give a chance” to the tentative peace deal scheduled to be signed Monday, state television reported.

A NATO official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the government ”has agreed to reinstate the cease-fire” brokered on July 5. He said NATO is ”talking to the appropriate people” in the National Liberation Movement to make sure that the rebels also respect the cease-fire.

A government offensive came to a halt late Sunday, but it was not immediately clear if there were still scattered skirmishes and if the rebels would accept the cease-fire.

During the day, government troops pounded the ethnic Albanian village of Ljuboten, just 3 miles north of capital, with mortars and tank fire with a barrage that lasted until the late afternoon. The government said the strike was prompted by an earlier rebel attack.

Army helicopter gunships and Sukhoi SU-25 ground attack jets also struck rebel targets in the village of Radusa near the Kosovo border to retain control of a water supply system vital for Skopje. There were reports of civilian casualties from the assaults, but no confirmation.

Government troops and insurgents also fought for control of villages and roads leading from Skopje to Kosovo and Albania. The road between the capital and the country’s second-largest city, Tetovo, was closed by fighting.

Each side accused the other of escalating the fighting.

Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski said earlier that ”the most realistic thing … is to undertake a very strong offensive to destroy the terrorists” to prevent them from seizing areas close to Skopje or even to enter the capital.

Speaking from Tetovo, Arben Xhaferi, an ethnic Albanian leader who participated in the peace talks, said: ”We are willing to sign a deal, but physically we cannot go to Skopje now” because of the fighting.

Xhaferi said government ”helicopters and fighter jets are indiscriminately bombing ethnic Albanian villages.” Not even ousted Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic ”used fighter jets during the war in Kosovo,” he said.

A rebel spokesman, who goes by the name of Besniku, said around 50 ethnic Albanian civilians died over the last three days alone, but could not estimate rebel casualties.

A resident of Ljuboten said a few thousand people in the village were cowering in basements while several were ”injured or possibly killed” in the streets. State television said street fights between government forces and the rebels prompted rebels and some 1,000 residents to flee.

A rebel commander warned in a telephone call to the AP that unless attacks cease, his fighters would retaliate by targeting the nearby Macedonian-populated Skopje suburb of Radisani. The government action against Ljuboten was apparently in response to a land mine explosion that killed eight government soldiers nearby Friday.

Macedonian leaders bitterly protested that the insurgents were getting armed support from ethnic Albanian-dominated Kosovo, a neighboring NATO-controlled Serbian province.

Howard Rhodes, a NATO spokesman in Kosovo, denied the claims, saying the alliance has ”location radars … (which) prove that no weapons fired yesterday originated from within Kosovo.”

In a message to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski said it was a ”crying shame” that United Nations and NATO officials in Kosovo ”allowed armed aggression” against Macedonia, asserting the ”international community has failed in its declared goals” of ensuring peace in the region.

”The political agreement is the best hope for peace,” said U.S. peace envoy James Pardew, who helped broker the tentative accord. He said that ”now is the time for the (Macedonian) leaders to sign the agreement.”

Macedonia’s ethnic Albanian militants took up arms in February, saying they want more rights for their community that accounts for up to a third of the country’s population of 2 million. The Macedonians say the rebels simply want to seize a chunk of territory and call it their own.

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