Straw pulls out of Skopje visit as war looms

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Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, pulled out of a visit to Macedonia yesterday as the European Union confronted the near-collapse of its efforts to prevent the country sliding into civil war.

After an evening of demonstrations and fears that a coup was imminent in the capital, Skopje, the EU urged restraint and argued that the break-up of Macedonia could still be avoided. But after weeks of brokering talks between the ethnic Albanian rebels and the Slav majority there was no disguising the alarm at the deterioration of the position.

Mr Straw postponed his visit to Skopje, which was due to take place yesterday and today. He said it would be inappropriate to go ahead with it "in the light of the situation in Macedonia".

The Foreign Secretary added that the Macedonian President, Boris Trajkovski, retained "Britain's full support in working for stability in the face of extremism". One EU diplomat added: "People see no alternative to the continuation of political dialogue. There is no Plan B." The lack of an alternative strategy was underlined in a formal EU statement. "There is still every chance of restoring peace and stability," it said, adding: "But it will require the courage and the resolve of every citizen to stand back now from the brink."

The EU, Nato and American officials have worked closely to try to put maximum pressure on both sides to come to a compromise. While the Macedonian government was backed in its initial counter-attacks against Albanian rebels, the EU condemned the violent Macedonian offensive of last Friday and threatened to cut off aid unless Skopje showed restraint. Francois Léotard, the French ex-defence minister appointed as the EU's permanent representative in Skopje, is expected to pay his first visit this week.

Monday night's violence followed a ceasefire deal, brokered by the EU's foreign policy supremo, Javier Solana, which led to Albanian rebel forces being evacuated from a strategic village in buses of the American K-For forces.

One official said the subsequent protests from Slavs in Skopje, including the occupation of the parliament, looked at one point "like an unfolding coup". Yesterday Anna Lindh, Foreign Minister of Sweden, which holds the EU presidency, said the Community had received assurances that Mr Trajkovski and his government were "in full control of the military and the police".

Nato has acute concerns over security in Skopje since it provides a link in the supply lines for K-For in Kosovo.

Diplomats are aware that the peace process has rarely looked more bleak. As one official said: "You cannot force people to get married against their will. You can bring the priest, lay on the car, provide the banquet. But, if they don't want to say 'yes', the church will remain empty."

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