West's Macedonian deal looking fragile

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The fragility of the Western-brokered peace process in Macedonia was exposed again yesterday when the country's parliament refused to debate the implementation of a political settlement for the second day running.

The parliament in Skopje eventually agreed to resume the debate. But the West's peace plan remains hostage to its outcome. If members do not vote in favour of measures granting ethnic Albanians more rights, the process could unravel. This would leave a Nato task force in the country, including up to 1,900 British soldiers, threatened by new fighting.

The Nato troops are here to collect arms given up by the rebel National Liberation Army (NLA) in return for rights. But rebel commanders warned yesterday that if the debate did not start, they would stop disarming.

At the heart of yesterday's impasse was a familiar problem: ethnic cleansing. Stojan Andov, the speaker of parliament, was insisting he would not allow the debate to start until ethnic Macedonian refugees forced out of their homes by rebels were allowed to return home. Mr Andov is a hardliner, opposed to concessions, and Western diplomats yesterday accused him of seizing on any excuse to scupper the peace process.

Although there are no mass graves, ethnic cleansing has been taking place on both sides. The rebels have forced thousands of ethnic Macedonians from their homes in Albanian-majority areas. Similarly, ethnic Albanians have been "cleansed" from Macedonian areas.

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