Negotiators 'close' to Macedonia peace deal

Ethnic cleansing is becoming a reality despite EU push for breakthrough deal between Albanian rebels and Skopje
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The Independent Online

Negotiators closed they were close to a peace deal in Macedonia last night after the European Union's security affairs chief, Javier Solana, flew in to speed up talks.

But it was not clear if a deal would be enough to end the crisis. Without an agreement respected by all sides, there are fears of civil war between minority Albanians and the ethnic Macedonian majority.

British troops are on standby to fly to Macedonia in a Nato mission to oversee the disarmament of Albanian rebels occupying large areas of the country, if a deal is signed.

But before it comes into force, any deal must be ratified by the Macedonian parliament ­ where it is likely to be opposed by Macedonians against any concessions to the rebels.

And there is no guarantee that the rebels themselves will accept the terms of a deal. They are not present at the talks because the Macedonian side refuses to deal with them.

Mr Solana agreed a deal yesterday on Albanian demands for better representation in the police, currently dominated by Macedonians. Under the new agreement, it is understood that international police would be sent in.

The rebels may be angered that demands for control of police in areas where Albanians are the majority were rejected. Their political leader, Ali Ahmeti, has publicly criticised a compromise on demands for Albanian to become a second official language.

Meanwhile, a big problem is developing for any deal: even as the talks continue, ethnic "cleansing" is under way.

Two dirty tractor trailers full of refugees stand outside the national parliment, a huge Macedonian flag flying from one. The refugees sleep there every night. They cannot go home, they say, because their villages have been occupied by the rebels.

Toni Markovski is living with her two children, husband and mother-in-law in one tiny room in Skopje's Hotel Pelargia. There are 500 ethnic Macedonian refugees crammed into the hotel, and the filthy reception area is full of screaming children. They are from the Tetovo area, where Albanians are the majority. When the rebels took the area recently, the Macedonians were ordered out, they say. Ms Markovski says her home was burnt to the ground. A local refugee group claims 60,000 Macedonians have fled the rebel advance around the country.

There are no mass graves in Macedonia ­ the hallmark of Balkan wars of the Nineties. But ethnic cleansing is happening, on both sides. Outside Ohrid, where the peace talks took place, graffiti reads: "Macedonia without Albanians". In the Macedonian-dominated city of Bitola, thousands of Albanians fled when their homes were burnt by Macedonian mobs in June. The mosque was desecrated, and Albanian graves dug up.

Now, at least one estate agent is arranging apartment exchanges between Macedonians fleeing Tetovo, and Albanians who had to leave Bitola. In the ethnically mixed capital, Skopje, rents are 40 per cent higher in "pure" areas.

Since the crisis began, the Macedonian government has accused the rebels of trying to break the country apart, and insisted it would never allow that.

But now, many Macedonians are speaking of some form of division or federalisation of the country. Saso Klekovski, of the Macedonian Centre for International Co-operation, said: "When the crisis began, the Macedonian attitude was 'The Albanians want their identity but we want to keep the country.' Now it's 'The Albanians want to stay but we want to get rid of them.'" In much of Tetovo, the rebels are in control. Guerrillas in full combat gear relax in the city's cafés, Kalashnikovs slung over their chairs.

In May, the Macedonian Academy of Sciences proposed solving the crisis by partitioning the country, and making a small land exchange with Albania proper. Tetovo would be ceded to the ethnic Albanians.

Sources say the Macedonian government encouraged several Macedonian newspaper editors to run reports on the proposal. A Western observer said: "The problem is the two sides have a different idea of partition. Albanians want control in areas where they live, but they want to stay in the state economy."

Dividing the country was not being considered as an option at yesterday's peace talks. But whatever deal is reached, division is quickly becoming the reality on the ground.