Hopes of an imminent peace deal in Macedonia were thrown into doubt on Monday, as talks ground to a halt amid unexpected new demands from the Macedonian government.
Ethnic Albanian rebels voiced dissatisfaction with a Western-brokered peace deal, which will provide for a planned 3,500 strong NATO force to disarm ethnic Albanian rebels, including British troops.
There are fears of civil war between the Albanian minority and the ethnic Macedonian majority if a peace deal cannot be made at the talks in the southern resort of Ohrid.
But no sooner had Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign affairs chief, flown out of the country announcing a peace deal was near, than the Macedonian side suddenly presented new demands, described by one Western observer as a "deal-breaker".
The Macedonian President, Boris Trajkovski was due to chair talks last night with senior cabinet colleagues in a bid to break the deadlock. A Macedonian official said the meeting would focus on issues of guerrilla disarmament.
If the British troops were to arrive immediately, they could find themselves in a hostile environment. The rebel National Liberation Army (NLA) is occupying large areas of land, including most of the main Albanian city, Tetovo. Nato sources stressed yesterday that the soldiers would only collect weapons voluntarily surrendered, and would not forcibly disarm the rebels, or act as peacekeepers.
Three British officers are already in Macedonia, conducting advance planning, the Ministry of Defence confirmed. The Nato task force's headquarters will be led by Britain's 16th Air Assault Brigade, and the collection of weapons will be undertaken by British soldiers working alongside troops from several other countries, including Greece, France and Italy – if they are able to come.
There were conflicting reports of what the new Macedonian demands at yesterday's talks were, but both versions being talked about would be a sign of extraordinary intransigence on the Macedonian side.
Some reports said the Macedonians were demanding that the rebels disarm before a peace deal is signed; others that they were demanding the rebels withdraw from a particular group of occupied villages before a deal is concluded. The demands appear to come from the Macedonian Prime Minister, Ljubco Georgievksi.
This is not the first time that the Macedonian side has made an agreement with Mr Solana when he flies in, only to change track as soon as he leaves. On one occasion, they ordered a new offensive as soon as his plane left the runway, and some observers were yesterday accusing Mr Georgievski of trying to sabotage the peace process.
One rebel commander, known by the nom de guerre of Shpati, said by telephone yesterday: "We will not hand over any weapons until we have a deal that is not only signed, but holding."
There is no guarantee that the rebels will accept the deal on the table, even before the new Macedonian demands. "We're not happy with the deal," said Shpati. "We have invested a lot in this, and we hoped for something better".
The rebels are not at the talks because the Macedonian side refuses to talk with them, so the Albanian side is represented by political parties. Under the deal currently on the table, Albanian will become a second official language in areas where Albanians account for more than 20 per cent of the population, and be spoken in parliament.
The Albanians had demanded it be an official language throughout the country, and be spoken throughout the government.
It is believed the compromise agreed by Mr Solana means 500 new Albanian police officers will be appointed in Macedonia, and trained by Western police, with a second batch of 500 some time in the future. But the Albanians had been calling for Albanian control of police in areas where they are the majority.
The editor of Fakti, Macedonia's main Albanian-language newspaper, said yesterday: "Did we go for all this just for 500 new police?"
Another problem still unresolved at the peace talks is the question of an amnesty for the Albanian rebels, who will be unlikely to hand over their weapons if they will then be liable to arrest. The Macedonian side has compounded this problem by issuing arrest warrants for 11 senior members of the NLA, including its political leader, Ali Ahmeti, for war crimes.
One Western diplomat warned yesterday that a lot could rest on how the Macedonian government sells a peace deal to the public. He said: "If they go out and say 'This was forced on us by the West, we were negotiating at gunpoint,' you could see more angry demonstrations outside parliament, and worse than last time."Reuse content