European envoys make last-ditch attempt to pull back Macedonia from brink of civil war

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The Independent Online

The most senior envoys from Nato and the European Union, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen and Javier Solana, flew to Macedonia yesterday to try to prevent civil war.

The past few days have seen the most serious fighting yet between government forces and the Albanian rebels of the National Liberation Army (NLA), and foreign targets, including the British embassy, have been attacked in two nights of anti-Western riots in the capital, Skopje.

Lord Robertson, the Nato secretary general, who has described the situation in Macedonia this week as "critical", said as he arrived yesterday that he and Mr Solana, the EU's security affairs chief, understood how much was at stake. "If we can help to get the negotiations back on track, then I hope we will save this country from the killing and carnage that has become the hallmark of Balkan civil wars," he said.

In this week's fighting, 11 civilians, including a 12-year-old girl, have been killed.

Western diplomats seem increasingly pessimistic, and it was lost on no one yesterday that both Lord Robertson and Mr Solana have dashed here several times to avert catastrophe since the crisis began in March – yet the position has steadily deteriorated. The work of Lord Robertson and Mr Solana to cajole the two sides to the negotiating table has repeatedly unravelled within days – sometimes hours – of their departure. On one occasion, the government ordered a new offensive almost as soon as Mr Solana's aircraft had left the runway.

Yesterday the government announced plans to charge 11 of the rebels – a move that may hamper Western efforts to persuade the Albanian side back to the negotiating table.

Added to that, the government has been whipping up anti-Western sentiment. Riots this week came after a government spokesman accused the West of siding with the rebels, and Macedonian television has accused Nato of arming the NLA.

The 11 men Macedonia intends to charge include the rebels' political leader, Ali Ahmeti, who reportedly agreed a new ceasefire with Western negotiators under which the rebels would withdraw from new territory they occupied in and around Tetovo, the unofficial capital of the country's Albanian minority, this week.

The rebels were reported to be withdrawing as agreed yesterday, and there were plans for 800 ethnic Slavs who fled the fighting to be bused back to their homes in the area yesterday. But with hundreds of Slavs continuing to flee Tetovo and its environs, many will be reluctant to return. The city is dominated by Albanians. To return angry and frightened Slavs to live side by side with them is potentially explosive.

One rebel commander was clearly reluctant to leave the village of Poroj, where nine Albanian civilians died in the fighting this week. Commander Leka at first told reporters he would refuse to leave, saying the wives and children of some of his guerrillas were still in the village and would be in danger from government troops. But Nato observers later said the rebels were pulling out of Poroj in line with the agreement.