Macedonian plan to retake rebel areas 'threatens peace process'

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There are fears the peace process in Macedonia could break down in new fighting if government forces go ahead with a plan to retake areas under the control of Albanian rebels today.

A rebel commander yesterday warned of war if security forces tried to enter the territory while Western officials reacted with anger and concern when the Macedonian Interior Minister, Ljube Boskovski, yesterday announced the move to retake rebel-held areas, ignoring calls to wait until a Western-brokered peace deal was implemented and a promised amnesty for the rebels agreed.

"Tomorrow is D-Day for Macedonia when our security forces will return to occupied territories," Mr Boskovski said at a press conference yesterday.

A rebel commander who uses the nom de guerre Leka said: "I think there is no way something like that can happen, but if tomorrow police do come into this area, war will resume."

Both Leka and Mr Boskovski are known hardliners within their respective camps. It is not clear whether Leka speaks for all the rebels, but Mr Boskovski has the power to follow through on his words.

Nato denied Mr Boskovski's claim that security forces were acting in co-operation with the alliance.

The Albanian rebel National Liberation Army says it has disbanded, after winning new rights for the country's Albanian minority in the Western-brokered peace deal. But gunfire still rings out across the front line, and many rebels are still in position, though out of uniform. Nato troops collected more than 3,000 weapons from the rebels, but it is believed they still have plenty of arms.

"A premature return of Macedonian security forces to the sensitive areas could reverse the peace process," one Western diplomat warned yesterday.

The process was already in trouble. None of the new minority rights for Albanians agreed under the peace deal have been formally passed into law yet, and the promised amnesty is nowhere in sight. Parliament has stopped meeting to debate the measures since Nato hailed its mission as a success and started to pull out some troops. Parliament refuses to resume sessions until the rebels account for several missing ethnic Macedonians.

* A driver died in a car that exploded in the capital, Skopje, yesterday. Police said the blast appeared to be caused by an explosive device.