Europe's security chief, Javier Solana, flew to Macedonia last night in a last-ditch attempt to salvage a vital political deal and prevent the country from sliding into civil war.
Mr Solana met leaders of the Slav majority and Albanian minority parties in a final push to clinch agreement on a crucial package of measures before a deadline expires on Monday.
The intervention followed the apparent collapse of talks on Wednesday when the Macedonian president, Boris Trajkovski, said negotiations were deadlocked, and claimed Albanian negotiators wanted to "block the talks completely".
EU diplomats remain optimistic about the prospects of securing a package of measures in time for Monday's meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg – which Europe has laid down as a deadline. But they are aware there is a narrow window of opportunity and one senior European official said that the two sides are "very close to civil war".
Both the Slav and the Albanian parties have called for Nato intervention and, on Wednesday, the alliance agreed in principle to send about 3,000 troops to Macedonia to help disarm the rebels. This, however, is conditional on the two sides first signing up to a political deal, which provides concessions to the Albanians, and on the National Liberation Army rebels agreeing to disarm.
Nato wants to make a decision as early as next Wednesday on whether its conditions have been met. That means a breakdown in talks over the weekend could spell the end of a consensus within Nato to send troops.
Concerns about the operation were underlined yesterday when the alliance's Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, General Joseph Ralston, highlighted the dangers facing a military mission in Macedonia, including landmines and accidents in rugged terrain.
General Ralston argued that "no military operation is ever totally risk-free", and added: "You are concerned about landmines, you are concerned about accidents, you are concerned about the infrastructure. The general added that a "detailed study of the terrain" showed "very rugged terrain, very rugged mountains" which posed particular difficulties.
Nato is aware that several Macedonian soldiers and police have died in mine explosions while trying to flush ethnic Albanian rebels out of their mountain position.
The alliance is still working up its military plan for Macedonia, and the issue of who would fix weapons collection points – the alliance, the Macedonian government or the insurgents – remained to be settled. It was unclear whether their weapons, which include heavy machine guns, mortars and rocket launchers, would be destroyed or stored. The physical process of disarmament may be time-consuming, fuelling fears that Nato deployment will be unable to withdraw in the time span expected.
But the bulk of the work over the weekend will be negotiations over the finer points of a political deal. The present blockage arises from a demand from the ethnic Albanian parties which want to lay down a series of policy areas within which they would have a veto. That is opposed by the Slav parties and western diplomats who argue that similar arrangements in other peace plans have led to political paralysis.
Last night, Zehir Bekteshi, the spokesman for the ethnic Albanian Party for Democratic Prosperity, said international mediation would be crucial, adding that "the talks cannot be considered off until after a meeting with Solana".
Mr Solana will spend today in the Middle East but will return to Skopje on Saturday in the hope of clinching an agreement between the parties. If there is a deal, Brussels is ready to step in with hefty financial assistance to underpin key elements of the package, such as an Albanian language university at Tetovo.
And, if the progress is good, the Macedonian Prime Minister, Ljubco Georgievski, is expected to fly with Ms Solana to Luxembourg to present the package of measures. At the same gathering, EU foreign ministers may appoint a permanent official to stay in Macedonia to represent Mr Solana, with the former French defence minister, Francois Leotard, the main contender.Reuse content