EU in last-ditch effort to avert Macedonian war

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The Independent Online

The European Union's new envoy, Francois Leotard, arrived in Macedonia yesterday to try to salvage peace after a week in which the West has seen its efforts to avert civil war go horribly wrong.

Only three days ago, an angry crowd in Skopje stormed the Macedonian parliament, chanting: "Albanians to the gas chambers". Mr Leotard warned that the country now stood on the brink. "Macedonia is the last domino in the Yugoslav crisis, if it falls the wrong way, the other dominoes could follow," he told French daily Le Figaro. "Failure in Macedonia could call into question all that we have achieved, at the price of great difficulties and pain, in Bosnia and Kosovo."

Western diplomats were speaking optimistically of Mr Leotard's mission yesterday ­ but his task will be difficult. He told Le Figaro: "We can see emerging elements of tension that we saw in Bosnia at the beginning of the crisis. One of my first duties is the prolonging of the ceasefire."

But there is no genuine ceasefire in force in Macedonia now. Even as Mr Leotard arrived at Skopje airport, fighting between Macedonian security forces and Albanian rebels continued around the country.

Albanians in Skopje are still talking nervously about rumours that Macedonian Slav paramilitaries plan to attack them. But the capital has been calm since Monday night, when army reservists stormed parliament and fired guns in the air outside the building.

As if his task in Macedonia were not difficult enough, Mr Leotard ­ who has plenty of clouds hanging over his past career as a French minister ­ arrived in Skopje with an additional problem of his own making. There were fears he would be declared persona non grata when the Macedonian government reacted furiously to his assertion to French reporters that the government would have to talk directly to the rebels. He later claimed that his remarks had been misconstrued.

The depth of the problems afflicting the peace process can be gauged from the fact thatthe rebels are not even at the negotiating table. The Albanian side is represented by Albanian political parties. Western diplomats privately concede that the Macedonian government may have to speak directly to the rebels eventually. "I think even the government realises that," said one diplomat. "But you don't say it publicly before you even arrive.What is the Macedonian Prime Minister likely to say when the Macedonian media demand a reaction?"

The rebels are demanding more rights for Albanians, who make up about a third of the population and say they are treated as second-class citizens. The Macedonian government accuses them of trying to partition the country.

Nato says it is still preparing to send 3,000 troops to the country. But their mission will only be to disarm the Albanian rebels, and they will only be deployed if and when a peace deal is agreed.

There is no peace deal on the table, and no immediate prospect of one.

The peace talks broke down completely last week after the Albanian side demanded the right of veto on all laws.

The immediate task for Mr Leotard ­ who is acting as the personal envoy of the European Union's security affairs chief, Javier Solana ­ is to try to restart the talks. When Mr Solana flew in to restart peace talks last week, he was optimistic. But no sooner had he left the country than the Macedonian army started a disastrous offensive on the rebel-occupied village of Aracinovo, six miles from the capital.

In any deal, the most important figure appears to be one operating in the shadows: Ali Ahmeti, the rebels' political leader, who left his farmhouse in a remote Macedonian village to start the rebellion.

Western sources say he has indicated that the rebels are prepared to be disarmed by Nato and withdraw if a deal is agreed. But it is not clear how united the rebels' National Liberation Army is, or whether Mr Ahmeti speaks for all its commanders.

Without a rebel withdrawal Macedonia's future looks bleak. Already at least two senior Western diplomats are believed to have told their governments that military intervention may be necessary, despite the international community's deep reluctance to get involved.

When asked about an armed intervention, Mr Leotard told Le Figaro: "If we had problems elsewhere in the Balkans, it is because we have too often delayed and because the operations were not adapted."