Macedonian government announces cease­fire with ethnic Albanian rebels

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The Macedonian government today announced a nationwide cease­fire with ethnic Albanian rebels whose four­month insurgency has threatened political stability in this Balkan country.

The NATO­brokered cease­fire, which comes a day after President Boris Trajkovski announced progress in political dialogue, clears the way for NATO troops to disarm the rebels. The cease­fire takes effect just after midnight Thursday, said Defense Minister Vlado Buckovski.

Preceding the cease­fire, the government reported heavy fighting overnight around Kumanovo, about 15 miles northeast of the capital, one of the conflict's hot spots. The attack from the rebel­held areas around Slupcane continued until around 6 a.m. No injuries were reported.

NATO troops were expected to be deployed as early as mid­month, Buckovski said.

"It is a major step forward," said Trajkovski's national security adviser, Nikola Dimitrov. "Of course it is not the end of the crisis, but it will create the conditions for political dialogue and of course it it one of the conditions for disarmament to be realized."

"We think and we hope this will bring peace to the Macedonian citizens," he said.

The agreement was signed in Prizren by Macedonia's chief of general staff, Pande Petrevski, and Ali Ahmeti, the political representative of the rebels' National Liberation Army. Further details were not immediately released.

The rebels launched their insurgency in February, saying their fight centered on securing greater rights and recognition for Macedonia's minority ethnic Albanians, who make up about a third of the country's 2 million people.

The government contends the militants are bent on seizing territory, and it has refused to negotiate directly with the insurgents.

On Wednesday, Trajkovski told reporters in the capital, Skopje, that the leaders of the country's major Macedonian Slavic and Albanian parties had agreed to launch expert­level talks on reforming the constitution to better protect the rights of ethnic Albanians.

The constitutional negotiations may prove to be the most painstaking of the confidence­building measures contained in Trajkovski's peace plan aimed at persuading the rebels to disarm.

Ethnic Albanian leaders want wider use of their language in official business and proportional representation in government institutions, among other issues that will have to be negotiated later.

They also want a new constitution to include provisions that will allow the Albanian minority to override future parliamentary decisions that have an impact on the minority.

A French constitutional expert, Robert Badinter, last week recommended against this measure, saying it runs counter to current democratic trends.

But despite this finding, ethnic Albanian leader Arben Xhaferi said in an interview Wednesday that he will continue to fight for the change ­ which he says is the only way to reverse decades of Albanian exclusion from state affairs.

He argued that Badinter's assessment applied to Western democracies, but not to a country mired in conflict where the ethnic minority has largely been excluded from society.

"The West doesn't understand because it represents an inclusive culture," meaning one in which society's key components are integrated, said Xhaferi, leader of the Democratic Party of Albanians. It is one of two Albanian parties which joined in an ethnically mixed government coalition formed in May, which was aimed at solving the crisis.

Xhaferi said he would continue to emphasize this point in discussions with U.S. and EU envoys who have been meeting with political leaders to jump­start the peace plan.

"The Albanians have accepted everything that is important to Macedonia. They accepted the integrity of the state. They did not seek territorial solutions to their problem. They don't support war as a means of solving problems. They recognize the name of Macedonia, their language," Xhaferi said.

"What we want is to protect and defend ourselves ­ at the same time affirm ourselves," he added.