Fighting continues past start of Macedonia cease­fire

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The Independent Online

Isolated clashes stretched into Friday, past the formal midnight start of an open­ended cease fire agreed on by Macedonian leaders and ethnic Albanian rebels in an effort to end the four­month­old Albanian insurgency threatening to engulf this Balkan country in civil war.

The deal, brokered by NATO and European Union officials, was meant to clear the way for disarming the rebels and was expected to ease tensions that have hampered a political agreement on ethnic Albanian demands for better protection of their rights.

"It is a major step forward," Nikola Dimitrov, national security adviser to President Boris Trajkovski, said Thursday.

Hopes for a breakthrough Thursday came amid intensified diplomacy by EU envoy Francois Leotard and his US counterpart James Pardew, and just a day after Trajkovski announced progress in political dialogue among the major Macedonian Slav and ethnic Albanian political parties ­ stalled after rioting 10 days ago.

Washington welcomed the cease­fire deal.

"We believe it's a very important and necessary step toward resolving the crisis in Macedonia. We urge the parties to fully honor the agreements that they negotiated with NATO and the European Union," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

The midnight cease­fire deadline approached amid heavy fighting around Tetovo, a mostly Albanian city 35 kilometers (20 miles) west of the capital. Just hours after the deal was announced, the rebels rained shells and opened gunfire on police positions near the sports stadium in the city, striking houses, buildings and cars. Eleven civilians were injured, five seriously, with gunshot and shrapnel wounds, hospital director Raim Thaci said.

The government responded with heavy force, using tanks, warplanes and helicopter gunships to target rebel checkpoints around the neighboring villages Poroj and Dzepciste, as well as suspected rebel positions in neighboring hills.

Fighting around Tetovo continued for several hours after midnight, according to state television, which also reported clashes at Radusa, 15 kilometers (nine miles) west of Skopje the capital, past the deadline. It also said the rebels attacked police stations at Terce village, near the Kosovo border and Lesok, northwest of Tetovo, after midnight. There was no comment by either the government or the rebels on the reports, and it was unclear whether the continued violence was the work of isolated units or represented a wholesale disregard by both sides of the agreement to stop fighting.

Any prolonged continued clashes would delay a direct NATO role in helping bring peace to the country ­ the alliance wants to ensure the cease­fire is holding before sending troops to begin the difficult task of disarming the rebels.

NATO's role "has to be in what we call a benign and consensual environment," said NATO spokesman Paul Barnard in Skopje on Thursday. "We are not here to enforce the disarmament."

Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, speaking for US Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, told reporters Thursday that NATO has not yet decided the time is right to begin the disarming effort, nor has the alliance assembled a force for that mission.

The final composition of the new NATO force has not been determined, but Barnard said British troops would lead any operation, working with Greek, Italian and French forces to collect the weapons, which are to be removed from the country and destroyed. US troops will be handling logistics, he said.

Macedonian Defense Minister Vlado Buckovski said some 3,000 NATO troops from 15 nations would be deployed by mid­month and the actual disarmament would begin two weeks later after collection sites are identified. The operation is expected to be completed in four to six weeks ­ assuming the cease­fire was respected.

Macedonia's chief of general staff, Pande Petrevski, signed a cease­fire document with NATO on Thursday in Skopje, and Ali Ahmeti, the rebel NLA's political leader, signed a separate deal with NATO Wednesday evening in the southern Kosovo city of Prizren.

The rebels indicated, however, they would not disarm until a political agreement providing equality for Macedonia's ethnic Albanian minority is reached.

The cease­fire was meant to create conditions that could allow early parliamentary elections in November and amnesty for rebels who have not committed war crimes, once they have disarmed.

The elections seek to provide better proportional representation for the Albanian minority, who make up about a third of the country's 2 million people but control only 25 seats in the 120­member national legislature.