Macedonian peace deal near despite killing of rebels

OHRID, Macedonia, Reuters

Macedonian peace talks got back on track on Tuesday, with hopes of a deal within hours despite the killings of five alleged ethnic Albanian rebels by police in the capital and clashes in the northwest.

“The agreement could even be signed within a few hours,” European Union mediator Francois Leotard told German radio.

Leaders of Macedonian political parties, meeting heads of ethnic Albanian parties for more than a week, dropped surprise demands made on Monday for NATO guarantees of fast disarmament of ethnic Albanian rebels, a senior Macedonian official said.

“We’re moving on,” the official said, saying NATO officials had offered other, unspecified, guarantees about disarmament to help avert a new Balkan war in the former Yugoslav republic.

A tenuous cease-fire had been dealt a further blow on Tuesday when police killed five rebels in a raid on a house in Skopje, saying they had plotted attacks. And rebels and government forces clashed overnight near the flashpoint city of Tetovo.

The official predicted the politicians might reach a final political agreement later on Tuesday on a package of measures to help improve the rights of Macedonia’s Albanians, who make up a third of the population.

If so, a signing ceremony for a political deal to undercut support for the five-month rebellion would probably be held in Skopje on Friday. NATO Secretary-General George Robertson was expected to attend.

President Boris Trajkovski spoke with Robertson by telephone on Tuesday and NATO’s special envoy Pieter Feith visited the talks in Ohrid, southwest Macedonia. NATO plans to deploy up to about 3,500 troops to collect arms handed in by rebels.

After the killings in Skopje, police showed off a cache of weapons seized in the dawn raid on a one-story house in a run-down Albanian quarter, including assault rifles, grenades and mortar rounds.

Police said the rebels had tried to shoot when they stormed the building around dawn. There was little sign of a struggle with no bullet marks on walls, but pools of blood on the floor showed evidence of the raid.

“A terrorist group was preparing an attack on Skopje and the police carried out an operation early this morning,” Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski told Reuters.

A rebel commander codenamed Leka told Reuters that the army caused extensive damage in the village of Neprosteno, northwest of mainly Albanian Tetovo, with heavy mortar fire through the night.

“We can’t figure out what the Macedonian forces want to achieve with such actions,” he said.