Macedonia heads for a war no one can win

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Macedonia risked plunging into an unwinnable war without the support of its Western allies yesterday, after the government resumed an offensive against Albanian rebels, which Nato condemned as "complete folly".

European mediators – hoping to pluck a last-minute peace deal out of the escalating conflict between Macedonia's majority Slav population and the large Albanian community – are also furious with the attack on the village of Aracinovo, six miles from Skopje. The helicopter gunship assault, which started on Friday, appeared to have sunk hopes of a political deal that might prevent the slide into all-out war.

A dramatic pullback by all parties is needed today if the Macedonian leaders are to meet a deadline set by Europe for agreement on concessions to the Albanian minority and the voluntary disarm- ament of rebels of the National Liberation Army (NLA).

Nato is prepared to send 3,000 troops, which both sides want to see deployed, on condition that there is a political deal, a ceasefire and an agreement by the rebels to lay down their weapons.

Nato's 19 ambassadors were hoping to approve a military plan on Wednesday. But for that to happen, the political deal needs to be agreed in principle tomorrow in Luxembourg. This would guarantee the rights of the Albanian minority and enshrine Albanian as an official language along with Macedonian. In exchange, the rebels would agree to give up their arms.

"Macedonia is on a downward spiral," Balkans expert Tim Judah said. "The NLA is highly mobile and can appear and disappear at will. The army does not have the kind of commando units they need. The danger is that the fighting will spread to Skopje."

Judah raised the prospect of a "Mostar scenario" unfolding in Macedonia's ancient capital, where the patchwork of minarets and Orthodox churches testifies to centuries of co-existence between Muslim Albanians and Christian Slavs.

In Mostar in south-west Bosnia in 1992, Croats on the west side of the city and Muslims in the east effectively partitioned what had been a multi-ethnic city in the early 1990s, and it remains divided to this day. A repeat performance in Skopje could see Albanians and Macedonian Slavs consolidating the western and eastern banks of the Vardar river that bisects the city.

One fear haunting the international community is that if the Macedonian offensive against the insurgents fails dismally, Skopje may appeal to fellow Orthodox neighbouring states for aid, raising the threat of a wider Balkan conflict. The Macedonians are already known to be co-operating militarily with Serbia to the north, which has its own Albanian "problem" in Kosovo.

Historically, Serbia and Bulgaria have long coveted Macedonian territory and disputed its identity. It was only in the 1940s that the Yugoslav Communists made Macedonia a constituent republic of the Yugoslav federation with a degree of autonomy.

One hopeful factor is that neither Belgrade nor Sofia at present have any appetite for foreign military adventures. Bulgaria's new royal Prime Minister, King Simeon, has made it known he wants nothing to do with the conflict. It was involvement in Macedonia that lost his grandfather, "Foxy" Ferdinand, his throne after the First World War.