'We must not let Macedonia perish in flames'

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The Independent Online

At least seven Macedonian soldiers were killed in a land mine explosion on Friday, as fighting with Albanian rebels spread to within a few miles of the capital, Skopje.

As the situation accelerated dangerously out of control, the Macedonian Prime Minister denounced a Western-brokered peace deal as "a shameful capitulation". Ljubco Georgievski insisted the country's armed forces could win a military victory. "Personally I am convinced that with complete unity and avoidance of earlier mistakes, Macedonia has the strength to win the fight for its own defence," he said.

So far the Macedonian army has been steadily losing ground to the rebels on the battlefield. The peace deal, brokered by envoys from the US and the European Union is supposed to be signed on Monday, but that is now in doubt after Mr Georgievski described it yesterday as "a shameful agreement under pressure from Albanian terrorist paramilitaries". His office later tried to play down the remarks, saying he would sign a peace deal.

However, a spokesman close to the Prime Minister said even if an agreement was signed "we will have peace on paper and war on the battlefields".

Hopes the deal would be enough to avert civil war had been dwindling fast even before Mr Georgievski's conflicting signals yesterday. Since the two sides tentatively agreed to the deal on Wednesday, a Nato-brokered ceasefire has broken down completely and the rate of killing has risen rapidly.

The Macedonian Foreign Minister, Ilinka Mitreva, appealed for help yesterday, in a dramatic open letter to international leaders. "Macedonia is facing the threat of civil war," she wrote. "We must not allow Macedonia to perish in flames."

A prominent commander of the rebel National Liberation Army (NLA), known as Sokoli said he saw no reason for the guerrillas to disarm, as envisaged under the West's peace plan. "The situation is worsening and we are ready for everything," he said.

Other rebel leaders were still insisting they would respect a deal. Up to 1,800 British troops are on stand-by to travel to Macedonia as part of a Nato task force to collect rebel weapons if a deal can be put into effect.

The deaths of at least seven soldiers yesterday, after their vehicle ran over land mines on a country road outside Skopje, was the second incident to involve heavy Macedonian casualties in just three days. Fighting broke out around the villages of Ljuboten and Ljubanci, just six miles (10km) from Skopje, after the incident. Albanians in Ljuboten claimed at least one house in the village was levelled by Macedonian helicopters.

The Macedonian government accused the NLA, which is occupying large swaths of the country, of laying the land mines on a road known to be regularly used by troops.

A little known rebel group called the Albanian National Army yesterday claimed responsibility for the killings of 10 Macedonian soldiers ambushed on Wednesday. The men were buried yesterday in their home town of Prilep. This second group has been known in Macedonia since at least last year, when it claimed responsibility for murdering three Macedonian police officers – long before the current crisis began.

Rebels and security forces fought an intense battle on Thursday for control of Tetovo, most of which has been in rebel hands since earlier fighting. The city was quieter yesterday, with reports of only sporadic shooting, and the rebels were still firmly in control in many areas.

With the battle for Tetovo, it appears lines may be being drawn for the conflict – and for some possible future division of the country. Minority groups are being "ethnically cleansed" – Macedonians intimidated into leaving Tetovo in rebel hands, Albanians threatened and warned to flee government-held areas.

¿ NATO-led peacekeepers arrested a Bosnian Serb army colonel on Friday who commanded a brigade in eastern Bosnia during the 1992-5 war, the Bosnian Serb interior ministry said.

Colonel Vidoje Blagojevic, still a serving member of the Bosnian Serb army, was arrested in the Banja Luka area.

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