Conflict dogs Macedonia peace deal

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The Independent Online
You could see the fighting from the edge of Macedonia's capital yesterday, on the eve of a ceremony to sign a Western-brokered peace deal that is supposed to end the crisis.

You could see the fighting from the edge of Macedonia's capital yesterday, on the eve of a ceremony to sign a Western-brokered peace deal that is supposed to end the crisis.

Nervous residents watched as fighters and helicopter gunships flew low over the city centre. Huge plumes of smoke could be seen rising from a village just a few miles outside.

A ceasefire was reported to have been agreed under Western pressure last night, to make today's signing of the peace deal possible. But whether the ceasefire will hold remains to be seen. Earlier yesterday, thousands of ethnic Albanian civilians sheltered in basements in the village of Ljuboten, three miles from Skopje, as Macedonian tanks and artillery shelled the houses. So far, three children ­ aged three, four and seven ­ have been killed.

Also yesterday, a group of Danish journalists was attacked by a Macedonian mob. Whether their Albanian driver survived a merciless beating was not known.

The fighting seemed to have been started by Albanian rebels, who fired on houses owned by ethnic Macedonians yesterday morning, Western sources said. The Macedonian army responded with a huge barrage of fire on the Albanian-populated area of the village.

The European Union's security affairs chief, Javier Solana, will fly in for today's signing of the peace deal. But serious doubts remain over whether it can end the crisis ­ or even if both sides are committed to it.

As one diplomat put it, the ceasefire came at the "eleventh hour". Hours before, a rebel commander threatened to attack the northern suburbs of Skopje if the army did not stop shelling Ljuboten. The main highway connecting Skopje to Tetovo was closed. It is believed the army and the rebels were fighting for control of the road.

Five ethnic Macedonian construction workers abducted by the rebels on the road, and later released, were beaten, mutilated and sexually abused, according to a report from the Human Rights Watch organisation.

The Macedonian government demanded action from Nato's peacekeeping force in Kosovo, K-For, saying the rebels were attacking Macedonia from across the border.

Nato officials denied the charge, but a credible Western source said the rebels were moving freely across the border.

The source also said that members of a Kosovo Albanian defence force set up and funded by the West were fighting alongside the rebels. The Kosovo Protection Corps is made up of veterans from the Kosovo Liberation Army, which fought against Slobodan Milosevic.

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