Macedonian parliament stormed by own troops

Demonstrators demand tougher action against Albanian rebels as the EU pushes for peace by threatening to freeze £55m in aid funding
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The Independent Online

Demonstrators broke into the Macedonian parliament building yesterday as thousands of people gathered to demand tougher action against ethnic Albanian rebels.

Army reservists fired submachine-guns from a balcony inside the building in Skopje as about 5,000 angry Macedonian Slavs gathered outside in a protest that highlighted the strains already evident in Sunday's ceasefire.

Some of the protesters, chanting "gas chambers for the Albanians", attacked two police cars while others destroyed furniture after breaking into the parliament building. One group displayed from the balcony the old Macedonian flag which was replaced more than half a century ago by the communists when the country was part of Yugoslavia. As the protest began, President Boris Trajkovski was talking with Macedonian and Albanian leaders inside, but they were reported to have left by a side exit.

With the hardline approach evident within the country, the European Union yesterday threatened to cut off aid worth tens of millions of pounds if Macedonia resumed attacks on the rebels. However, almost as soon as the aid threat was issued fighting broke out last night around Tetovo. It was not clear who started it.

The atmosphere of crisis continued as diplomats sought to ensure that the Nato-brokered ceasefire around the rebel-held village of Aracinovo would take effect. Since the end of last week the Macedonian army has attacked this suburb of Skopjeto purge it of rebels. The ethnic Albanians finally pulled out in buses last night sparking the protests at the parliament building.

In a smaller protest, a crowd near Kumanovo blocked a road. The protesters prevented empty buses from moving shortly after they were used to take some of the rebels from Aracinovo to Umin Dol, just outside Kumanovo.

Meanwhile, Macedonian government troops wounded an American near Aracinovo in what appeared to be a mistake. The American, dressed in civilian clothes, was heard identifying himself as John Green.

The prospect of Nato troops being deployedhas by now diminished. The alliance has said a political deal must first be in place, along with an agreement by the rebels to disarm.

The failure by the government and ethnic Albanians to reach an agreement last week has dismayed European foreign ministers. They have appointed a permanent representative, the French politician François Léotard, to run multiparty talks in Skopje.

Amid signs of irritation at the behaviour of the Macedonian government, the European Commission also threatened to freeze its next two consignments of aid, worth 50m euros (£30m). Officials also made it clear that a further 42m euros of project assistance was in the balance.

"There is little we can do in terms of financial support until there's a political settlement," the EU's external relations commissioner, Chris Patten, told a press conference after the Macedonian Foreign Minister, Ilinka Mitreva, met her EU counterparts in Luxembourg.

Mr Patten added: "It is difficult to build people's confidence when money, which is clearly in very short supply, is being spent on bombs and rockets. The sooner there can be a ceasefire, permanently, and the sooner there can be a political settlement, the sooner we can discuss investing".

* Lawyers for Slobodan Milosevic lodged an appeal with Yugoslavia's Constitutional Court yesterday against a decree that paves the way for the former president's transfer to the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague. The lawyers argue that the decree violates the country's constitution.