Rival factions negotiating for peace in Macedonia strike deal on police issue
OHRID, Macedonia (AP) – Macedonia’s rival factions made a breakthrough in peace efforts Sunday, agreeing on a plan to restructure the country’s police forces, a top European Union official mediating the talks said.
The deal appeared to remove a major barrier to an overall peace plan in the troubled Balkan country. Disputes about the police have stalled talks between majority Macedonians and ethnic Albanian leaders for days. Talks were to continue Monday and shift to more minor, less contentious points.
”I think we can say that the parties have agreed on the document on police,” EU security chief Javier Solana said at a news conference to announce the agreement, which he helped broker.
”This will lead to a country that is stable and prosperous and has a European perspective,” he said.
Solana did not offer details on the plan, but Western officials speaking on condition of anonymity later said it changes the ethnic composition of police forces to better reflect Macedonia’s population.
”It’s a major step forward in the reform of the police in Macedonia and it is a basis for democratic change in the country,” said U.S. envoy James Pardew, one of the Western officials mediating talks to end a 5-month-old insurgency by ethnic Albanian extremists and improve tense relations between majority Macedonians and the ethnic Albanian minority.
After a hard-won agreement on the contentious issue of the status of the Albanian language, the talks had focused in recent days on the ethnic Albanians’ demands that their sizable community – nearly a third of Macedonia’s 2 million people – be given a greater representation in police forces.
U.S. and EU envoys have been mediating for weeks in hopes of preventing battles which have killed dozens of people and displaced thousands from erupting into an all-out war that could involve other nations.
Under Solana’s plan, the ethnic Albanians won pledges to increase their numbers on the force, but lost in a bid to have police chiefs answer to local leaders rather than the Macedonian-dominated central government in the capital, Skopje.
Macedonians retained centralized control of the forces. Macedonians had feared giving that up would allow areas now under rebel control to forever slip from their grip.
Western officials speaking on condition of anonymity said the police plan that was agreed upon also envisioned the deployment of dozens of international police officers to Macedonia. The officers and experts would come on top of the estimated 3,000 NATO troops that the proposed peace plan envisages to help disarm the ethnic Albanian rebels.
The rebels have not been at the negotiating table, but ethnic Albanian political leaders at the talks are considered representatives of the entire community, including the militants.
Hours before Solana’s announcement, a commander of the guerrillas entrenched in northwestern Macedonia told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that his fighters would not recognize any deal made at Ohrid, the resort town where the talks are taking place. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said they want a broader ”international conference.”
Asked by reporters what would happen if the rebels refuse to accept a deal reached at the negotiating table, Solana just said, ”They will comply.”
The breakthrough came the same day Solana brought Ukraine’s foreign minister, Anatoliy Zlenko, to Ohrid to discuss his country’s arms sales to Macedonia. The United States has been pressuring Ukraine to halt the sales, fearing more weapons will prolong the conflict and undermine peace talks.
Ukraine has been Macedonia’s key arms supplier since Macedonia’s government forces began battling ethnic Albanian rebels in February. Macedonia’s air force now includes eight MI-8 and four MI-24 helicopters, and another four Su-25 aircraft for ground support, all bought from Ukraine.
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