SKOPJE, Macedonia — Political reform talks aimed at ending an ethnic Albanian insurgency will resume soon, with the next round to be held in the strife-torn city of Tetovo as a symbol of negotiators' commitment to peace, Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski said Thursday.
A cease-fire that broke down this week now appears to be restored, with the insurgents pulling back toward positions they held when the truce took effect July 6, Western mediators said. The guerrillas, who launched their uprising in February, say they want greater rights for ethnic Albanians, while the government charges that they are seeking to split the country.
"The political process is back on track, and the cease-fire is back on track. Both things are of tremendous importance," European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana told a joint news conference in Skopje, the Macedonian capital.
NATO Secretary-General George Robertson declared at the news conference: "We came as worried friends. We go away from here as hopeful friends because we had constructive discussions today."
Robertson said that "with goodwill and flexibility," agreement on a reform package to satisfy ethnic Albanian demands for greater rights "should be [reached] in these next few days in the symbolic city of Tetovo."
"This country over the last few weeks has been on the edge of a precipice that would lead to a civil war, and a civil war in this country would have no victors but thousands upon thousands of casualties," he said. "So I'm glad that from our discussions today it seems clear that people want to avoid that eventuality."
If political leaders on both sides of the ethnic divide can agree on a political reform package, guerrilla leaders will be asked to endorse a peace deal and to disarm. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has approved a standby plan for deploying 3,000 alliance soldiers to help with disarmament.
"Our troops are ready and poised to come here to take the guns and the ammunition of the insurgents and to return this country to peace and stability again," Robertson said.
The political talks have deadlocked primarily over the issue of whether Albanian should be made an official language. Ethnic Albanians make up at least a quarter of the country's 2 million people.
In an action that could cloud prospects of a peace deal, the Macedonian Interior Ministry on Thursday filed criminal charges against Ali Ahmeti, the guerrillas' political leader, and 10 other rebel officials, whom it described as the heads of a "vicious terrorist band." They were charged with "crimes against humanity and of creating a criminal gang with the aim of secession of a part of Macedonia's territory and creating a 'Greater Albania' and 'Greater Kosovo.' "
Trajkovski said Tetovo was chosen as the site for "the next cycle of talks" because "we who talk a lot about peace should show in this way that we want peace in Tetovo. With our presence, we want to show that Tetovo is a safe town for life."
In keeping with a deal reached Wednesday, guerrillas were reported Thursday to have pulled back from positions around Tetovo and along a road leading from that northwestern Macedonian city to the border with Kosovo, a province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic.
In return, the Macedonian government promised that its security forces would exercise restraint.
Two busloads of ethnic Macedonians who had fled or been forced out of villages along that road returned to visit their homes Thursday after the rebels pulled back.
The convoy was led by NATO special envoy Pieter Feith and Defense Minister Vlado Buckovski. The group stayed in the mountain villages for about two hours before returning to Skopje amid continuing fears for their safety, Macedonian state television reported.
Ethnic Macedonian politicians have charged that the guerrillas have been driving non-Albanians out of the areas they control.
Arben Xhaferi, head of the Democratic Party of Albanians, said he had received guarantees from the rebels that they were not forcing ethnic Macedonians from their homes. He said they "were forced out by fear created by the media and the state."
Xhaferi said that ethnic Albanians in Macedonia have achieved "a magnificent success" in bringing the political negotiations to the point they are at now and that he is "an optimist when it comes to politics."
But he added that he did not know "what war scenarios" are being considered "behind the scenes" by foreign supporters of hard-liners in the Macedonian government. Xhaferi said that in Thursday's talks he urged that "a weapons embargo should be put in effect in order to stop encouraging those people who love war."
Despite the continued uncertainties, charges and countercharges, Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski, one of the most hard-line ethnic Macedonian political leaders, also expressed hope Thursday for peace.
"Mr. Solana and Mr. Robertson came at the right moment because I think that today's talks introduced a new spirit into the dialogue that unfortunately had been in crisis," Georgievski said.
"What I think is especially important is that the situation in Tetovo has calmed down. Information from Tetovo regarding the cease-fire is good. However, regarding the withdrawal [of rebel forces] and security for the return of civilians, it is still not ideal."
Georgievski said the political reform talks might resume in Tetovo as early as today.