Nato on stand-by after Macedonia ceasefire agreed

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Macedonia announced an open-ended ceasefire with Albanian rebels yesterday, which could pave the way for a peace deal and the deployment of a Nato force including British troops within weeks.

But Nato's secretary general cautioned that the ceasefire would have to prove "durable" before the planned 3,000-strong force would be sent in to the former Yugoslav republic.

Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, speaking in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, welcomed the deal as a "vital step" but added that Nato wanted to see a political deal on the table, ending the Albanians' four-month rebellion, before it deployed troops.

Vlado Buckovski, the Macedonian Defence Minister, said the ceasefire, brokered by Nato and the European Union, would take effect from midnight last night. It followed a day of sporadic fighting around the largely Albanian town of Tetovo in the west of the republic. Nato staff in Belgium have already completed planning the mission to disarm the Albanian rebels of the National Liberation Army as part of an overall political settlement.

But the 19 Nato nations have agreed only on a mission – known as Essential Harvest – which assumes that the NLA is handing over its weapons voluntarily in exchange for political concessions from the Slav-dominated Macedonian government. Lord Robertson said: "Nato has not made a decision on the date for helping in Macedonia. That will be determined by the progress in the political dialogue and the ceasefire. We will have to make an assessment of when the circumstances are right.

"That is when there is a durable ceasefire and a sustainable political settlement."

Rudolf Scharping, Germany's Defence Minister, suggested Nato peace-keeping troops could enter Macedonia in as little as two weeks' time.

The ceasefire agreement was signed by Pande Petrevski, Macedonia's chief of general staff, and Ali Ahmeti for the NLA. Rebel leaders sounded upbeat about the prospects of a lasting peace. "The ceasefire is ... important because this one was brokered by the EU, US and Nato leaders as a way to create conditions to resume political dialogue," said Gezim Ostreni, the NLA military chief.

So far, a political deal granting the Albanians language and other rights and changing the Macedonian constitution has been elusive.

But on Wednesday, President Boris Trajkovski announced that all the main Macedonian and Albanian parties had agreed to start high-level talks on peacefully resolving Albanian grievances.

The agreement also provides for early parliamentary elections in November and includes an amnesty for rebels who have not committed any crime during the campaign.

The elections may result in better representation for the Albanian minority in parliament. Although they make up about one-third of the country's 2 million people they currently hold only 25 seats in the 120-member legislature.

The final composition of the Nato force has not been determined but it is envisaged that British, Greek, Italian and French forces would disarm the rebels, while American troops would handle logistics.

Nato will face a dilemma if it holds out too long before moving in to bolster the peace process. Most policy-makers concede that, if the country disintegrates into civil war, the Western powers will face calls for a much more substantial involvement.