Peace talks stumble on Macedonian demand for swift rebel disarmament |

Peace talks stumble on Macedonian demand for swift rebel disarmament

OHRID, Macedonia (AP) – Peace talks suffered a major setback Monday when the Macedonian government demanded that ethnic Albanian rebels fully disarm prior to final approval of a political settlement.

A day after majority Macedonians and the restive ethnic Albanians achieved a breakthrough by agreeing on how to overhaul and jointly run the country’s police force, the Macedonians came up with a new demand which a Western peace mediator called a ”serious setback.”

A negotiator representing the Macedonians said the demand came from VMRO, the governing party of hard-line Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski, who now wants to change the implementation of the Western-designed peace plan for the strife-torn Balkan country.

Under the plan, the rebels’ disarmament, by some 3,500 NATO troops, would take place after an accord is signed and parallel to its ratification by Macedonia’s parliament.

Georgievski and others now reportedly want much faster disarmament of the rebels.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said NATO forces would not deploy before a political arrangement is reached.

”The understanding has always been that when there was a general political agreement, which is what we’re working toward, that NATO would deploy in support of this and carry out the action of voluntary disarmament by the ethnic Albanian insurgents. That remains the NATO plan, and we’re not changing it,” Boucher said.

The new demand appeared to disrupt negotiations. A Western diplomat in Orhid, site of the peace talks, said that by putting new last-minute demands on the table, the Macedonians had raised questions about their credibility.

Meanwhile, top Macedonian leaders, including President Boris Trajkovski, the defense and interior ministers as well as the chief commander of the Macedonian army, met separately to discuss how to move ahead with the talks, which have dragged on for almost a month.

After the meeting, Trajkovski issued a statement saying the talks would continue on Tuesday. He did not elaborate on the new problem.

Francois Leotard, the European Union peace envoy, sounded less pessimistic, saying, ”We need more time – one day, two days, not more, I presume.”

Earlier in the day, the two sides were said to have only a few minor points to iron out.

On Sunday, the sides agreed on the contentious issue of having more ethnic Albanians in Macedonia’s police force, which should help end the months-long ethnic Albanian insurgency that has taken dozens of lives and left thousands homeless.

The insurgency erupted in February over ethnic Albanian demands for broader rights and influence.

The sides agreed the number of ethnic Albanians in the force should in future reflect the country’s ethnic mix. The ethnic Albanians account for nearly a third of Macedonia’s 2 million people, but ethnic Albanians make up only about 5 percent of Macedonia’s 6,000 policemen.

In return, the Macedonian-dominated government would retain central control of the police.

The plan also envisions the deployment of dozens of international police experts to help carry out the reform.

Before the setback, NATO spokesman Maj. Barry Johnson said Monday that the 3,500 troops from several NATO countries could start deploying ”within as little as 48 hours” after the peace agreement is signed to collect weapons from the rebels.

The so-called Operation Essential Harvest would be British-led and last 30 days, Johnson said.

The ethnic Albanian rebels, who control swaths of territory in northern and northwestern Macedonia, have been a wild card in the difficult peace process.

On Sunday, a guerrilla commander told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that his fighters would not recognize any deal.

Macedonians regard ethnic Albanian demands as a strategy to carve off territory and break up the country. Yet, they have agreed to the expanded official use of the Albanian language, set a minimum of minority votes needed to pass laws in parliament, and earmarked funds for Albanian-language higher education.

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