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Macedonia, Rebels OK Cease-Fire


BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — The government of Macedonia and ethnic Albanian guerrillas agreed Thursday to a Western-brokered truce, bringing hope that the country's slide toward civil war can be reversed. But diplomats warned that any true solution to the nation's political and military crisis remains far off.

The cease-fire is meant to improve the atmosphere for ongoing negotiations within the Macedonian government aimed at granting greater rights to the country's large ethnic Albanian minority and thereby persuading the rebels to lay down their arms. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has approved a standby plan to deploy 3,000 troops to disarm the guerrillas if they sign on to a peace deal.

Scheduled to take effect this morning just after midnight, the truce "is a major step forward," Nikola Dimitrov, national security advisor to President Boris Trajkovski, told reporters in Skopje, the Macedonian capital.

"It is not the end of the crisis," Dimitrov said. "But it will create peaceful conditions for political dialogue, and, of course, it is one of the preconditions for the disarmament process to be realized. . . . We think and we hope this will bring peace to the Macedonian citizens."

In the hours before the scheduled launch of the cease-fire, fighting raged near the northwestern city of Tetovo. Rebels fired mortar shells from mountainside strongholds at police positions near the city's sports stadium, hitting some houses. Eight civilians were injured, five seriously, a hospital reported.

The government used helicopter gunships and tanks to target rebel positions. Each side accused the other of trying to grab land before the truce took effect.

The fighting occurred near the border with Kosovo, a province of Serbia, the dominant republic of Yugoslavia. NATO peacekeepers are already on duty in the predominantly ethnic Albanian province.

Although the guerrillas agreed to the cease-fire, they have not been invited to the talks among ethnic Albanian and Macedonian Slav politicians over how to revise the constitution to deal with minority grievances. The United States and the European Union have put enormous pressure on the negotiators to come to a deal.

Political leaders on both sides appear to be nearing agreement on constitutional changes and other measures to grant greater rights to ethnic Albanians, such as wider use of the Albanian language in official business, more representation in government institutions and decentralization to give more power to local governments.

But ethnic Albanian leaders also want constitutional reforms that would require some decisions to be approved not just by a majority of parliament but also by a majority of ethnic Albanian representatives in parliament.

Macedonian Slav leaders have been vehemently opposed to any such solution. But ethnic Albanians, who make up at least a quarter of Macedonia's 2 million population, say they need such protections to avoid being constantly outvoted by the Slav majority.

In a reflection of the refusal by Macedonian Slav leaders to even consider talking to rebel leaders, the cease-fire came not as a direct deal between the warring parties but in separate deals that representatives of NATO concluded first with the rebels and then with the Macedonian government.

Ali Ahmeti, political leader of the ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army, signed a truce document with alliance representatives Wednesday evening in the southern Kosovo city of Prizren. Then, Macedonia's chief of general staff, Lt. Gen. Pande Petrevski, signed a cease-fire agreement with NATO on Thursday in Skopje.

The truce came as two newly appointed trouble-shooters, U.S. envoy James Pardew and EU envoy Francois Leotard, began diplomatic work in the Macedonian capital. "The team of experts will now continue in the following days to work very hard with all the parties to obtain some progress in the constitutional fields," Leotard told reporters.

"A more elaborate, detailed document will be required" for disarmament of the guerrillas, "and I suspect that that will be difficult to achieve until we get either a completed political process or get very far along on one," Pardew told BBC World News after announcement of the cease-fire.

Macedonian Defense Minister Vlado Buckovski held out hope of rapid progress, but he too noted that everything depends on the political negotiations among different parties in the country's multiethnic unity government.

"With the cease-fire, we've made the right conditions for the start of the most difficult phase of the peace plan--the disarmament of the Albanian terrorists," Buckovski said. "The expectation is that, if there's progress in the political talks, we could see the first NATO troops here by July 15 and the start of disarmament by the end of the month."

It appeared unlikely, however, that the peace process would move that quickly.

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