Albanian rebels start pullout, say officials

TETOVO, Macedonia, AP

Rebels began withdrawing Thursday from positions near Tetovo, Macedonia’s second largest city, and ethnic Albanian politicians said talks would resume on an end to the conflict that threatens to expand into civil war.

Defense Ministry officials said that ethnic Albanian insurgents were voluntarily reversing their advances near Tetovo, dismantling road blocks and barricades on the road from the city leading to the border crossing with neighboring Kosovo. They said Macedonians who had fled the region would be bused back in the afternoon.

“The withdrawal of the terrorists is ongoing, though I have no information whether it is completed,” said Defense Ministry spokesman Marjan Gjurovski. Hans Joerg Eiff, NATO’s ambassador to Macedonia, said without elaboration that the rebels were “in compliance with the cease-fire agreement.”

Later, a rebel spokesman known as Commander Iliri told The Associated Press by telephone from his mountain hide-out that the withdrawals were completed by noon.

“All roadblocks have been removed,” he said. “We hope that this agreement will give peace another chance.”

Adding to optimism, talks involving ethnic Albanian politicians and majority Macedonian leaders, meant to upgrade the minority’s status and achieve lasting peace, restarted Thursday afternoon. They collapsed last week, leading to a resumption of fighting and fading hopes of a peaceful settlement.