Macedonia peace under threat as rebels vent fury

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The Independent Online

Albanian rebels battled government forces for control of Macedonia's second largest city on Thursday in an apparent bid by rival sides to buttress their position before any implementation of a peace deal meant to avert civil war.

Albanian rebels battled government forces for control of Macedonia's second largest city on Thursday in an apparent bid by rival sides to buttress their position before any implementation of a peace deal meant to avert civil war.

The rebels attacked a police checkpoint near the soccer stadium in Tetovo, peppering the sandbagged positions with gunfire early in the day and killing a policeman. Government forces responded, with an exchange of mortar fire.

"Everybody is hiding in basements," said Dragan Stojanovski, a reporter for the local television station, KISS. "The [rebels] are targeting police positions."

Police set up roadblocks leading to the predominantly ethnic Albanian city, hoping to contain the violence.

The clashes added to concerns that the rebels would ignore the basic tenets of the peace agreement accepted by Macedonian and ethnic Albanian political leaders on Wednesday. The insurgents did not directly take part in the negotiations and no one knows if the agreement will hold.

The chief of police in Tetovo, Saip Bilalli, said fighting continued into the early evening with sniper fire from both sides. A rebel commander said his fighters were in control of "half of the city," and had surrounded an army barracks. "The fighting has been going on all day long. We'll see what happens during the night."

The rebels having been fighting since February, demanding rights for minority ethnic Albanians, who account for about a third of Macedonia's two million people. The government has repeatedly said their movement must be quashed and insisted force is needed to regain rebel-held territory.

Francois Leotard, the EU's peace mediator, said he was cautious about prospects for peace in the light of the escalating violence. "If the situation continues to deteriorate on the ground, what has been established and concluded on paper could be called into question," he said.

The Western-designed peace plan grants the restive ethnic Albanian minority a greater role in police, parliament and education. About 3,500 Nato soldiers will disarm the rebels, but only after the rival sides agree on the deal.

The latest fighting came after rebels killed 10 soldiers on Wednesday, triggering violence in three cities, including the capital, Skopje. After the attack, Macedonia's President, Boris Trajkovski, accepted the resignation of Pande Petrovski, the army chief of staff.

The ambush of the soldiers' convoy, the single worst casualty toll in a battle since the start of the Macedonian crisis, began, and the fighting in Tetovo, has added a sense of urgency after the conclusion of the peace talks in Ohrid.

While the situation on the ground deteriorated, Nato's ambassador to Macedonia, Hansjoerg Eiff, told Germany's ZDF television that the insurgents still had to accept a disarmament plan before the alliance collected their weapons. Macedonian officials should also grant the rebels an amnesty, he said.

Macedonian hard-liners unwilling to accept the deal found some support in mobs, including one that stormed a hospital in Skopje searching for ethnic Albanian rebels. The crowds later withdrew.

Mobs also rampaged on Wednesday through Prilep, and a local news agency in Kosovo reported that an ethnic Albanian boy aged four was killed in Rastan when his family home was attacked by gunmen.

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