Macedonia peace deal reached on worst day of violence

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The Independent Online

A Western-brokered peace deal appeared to have been agreed in Macedonia yesterday ­ but it came on a day when 10 Macedonian soldiers were killed by Albanian rebels.

A Western-brokered peace deal appeared to have been agreed in Macedonia yesterday ­ but it came on a day when 10 Macedonian soldiers were killed by Albanian rebels.

The worst day of violence yet also saw an Albanian civilian killed and a three-year-old Macedonian girl wounded in fighting which broke out in the streets of Tetovo, the country's main Albanian city, leaving a Nato-brokered ceasefire in shreds.

Last night hundreds of angry Macedonians gathered outside the European Union's office in Skopje, calling for arms. They then marched towards the main square, chanting, "Albanians to the gas chamber".

Western diplomats insisted the peace process was still on track. Francois Leotard, the European Union's envoy, said a peace deal had now been agreed by all the parties at negotiations, and would be signed on Monday.

Up to 1,800 British soldiers are standing by to travel to Macedonia to supervise rebel disarmament if a deal holds and is respected by the Albanian rebel National Liberation Army.

News of the 10 soldiers' deaths ­ the highest number of casualties in a single incident since the crisis began ­ reached peace talks in the resort of Ohrid just as the parties agreed to the terms of the deal, according to Western sources. The group led by the country's Prime Minister, Ljubco Georgievski, walked out of the talks in protest, but was reported to have returned later.

Angry crowds of ethnic Macedonians began gathering in the capital, Skopje, to protest at the killing of the soldiers. President Boris Trajkovski convened an emergency meeting of the country's National Security Council. There are fears the violence could develop into civil war between the Albanian minority and the ethnic Macedonian majority.

As Western diplomats desperately scrambled to hold the talks together, there were disturbing signs that recent events may have been carefully stage-managed in an effort to derail the peace process. This week's killings did not begin with yesterday's ambush of the soldiers ­ it began when Macedonian police shot dead five alleged rebels of the NLA in Skopje's Albanian quarter on Tuesday.

Albanian sources said they believed the ambush of the soldiers may have been in revenge for those killings. Despite official claims that the alleged rebels were killed after they opened fire on police, the evidence at the scene pointed to a political assassination.

Peter Bouckaert, a researcher from the Human Rights Watch organisation, who was on the scene, said it was clear the men had been shot lying down, and that he found no bullets fired in the direction of the police. Western observers said the timing of that incident was highly suspect with a peace deal near ­ and that it could have been a deliberate attempt to derail the talks. If that was the case, yesterday's rebel ambush was exactly what those behind the killings in Skopje wanted. "Both sides believe they're just a single military victory away from winning," said Brenda Pearson, of the International Crisis Group think-tank.

The Macedonian press has claimed the army could easily defeat the rebels, but that it is being held back by the West. In fact, the rebels have been the more successful side on the battlefield.

There is also growing support for some form of division of the country. "Ethnic cleansing" is under way, with both Albanians and Macedonians being intimidated into leaving towns where the other community is in the majority.

Yesterday's ambush happened at Grupcin, where the highway that links Skopje to Tetovo climbs through a narrow twisting pass. A routine convoy of soldiers travelling in jeeps and trucks was ambushed by rebels firing rocket-propelled grenades. The Macedonian air force responded by scrambling Sukhoi fighter jets and helicopter gunships that were reported to have fired rockets on the hills.

The road was rapidly closed to all traffic, in effect sealing off access to Tetovo from Skopje. But a witness who was on the road minutes after the ambush said he saw a civilian Fiat Uno car in flames. There was no word on civilian casualties.

He also said he saw 10 tanks being transported in the direction of Tetovo, where fighting broke out shortly afterwards. It was not clear who started the fighting, but there were reports that a 35-year-old Albanian had been killed and a three-year-old Macedonian girl injured.

Most of Tetovo has been in rebel hands since the last round of violence two weeks ago, and there were unconfirmed reports yesterday that they had captured more of the city. Guerrillas were seen searching the homes of Macedonians in Tetovo and setting up roadblocks on the road south to Gostivar, where the majority are Albanians.