6, 2001 2:50pm ET
Macedonian lawmakers voted to allow constitutional reforms giving more rights to minority ethnic Albanians, smoothing the path for continuation of the peace process.
The crucial vote on the peace plan passed with a 91-19 margin with two abstentions in the 120-seat legislature garnering well over the required two-thirds majority.
The debate over whether to allow constitutional reforms wore on for almost a week in Skopje, Macedonia's capital. Many lawmakers were hesitant to endorse a peace plan that would give ethnic Albanians more rights in exchange for rebel disarmament, but they conceded after Western envoys warned that failure to pass the vote would jeopardize guerrilla disarmament.
Ethnic Albanian guerrillas, who have waged war against the Macedonian government since February, welcomed the parliamentary vote.
"We were waiting for the vote and finally it has been achieved," a rebel brigade commander known as Commander Qeka told Reuters. " This makes us 80 percent sure that the war is about to end and we're willing to continue our cooperation."
NATO troops immediately began talks with ethnic Albanian rebels to determine the best location for restarting weapons collections, which could resume as early as Friday. The rebels have already handed in 1,400 weapons, over a third of the arsenal to be surrendered.
The parliament's vote was essential for the peace process to advance, but it was only a general backing of the plan's overall framework. The government will face its most difficult decisions when it starts debate on specific constitutional changes.
According to the Western-backed peace agreement signed three weeks ago, ethnic Albanians would receive greater representation in government and the police force, political power would be decentralized, and Albanian would become the second official language in communities over 20 percent ethnic Albanian.
In exchange, the rebel National Liberation Army (NLA), which has led a war against the Macedonian government, agreed to surrender its arms to NATO troops. The exact size of the rebel arsenal is unclear, but NATO has agreed to collect 3,300 weapons before it ends its 30-day mission on September 26.
Just a few days after NATO's departure, the peace plan will be resubmitted to parliament for ratification, at which point it will need a two-thirds majority to pass. The rebels say they will disband if the reforms go through.
Scores of people have been killed and more than 100,000 displaced since the NLA uprising began over six months ago. The rebels said they were fighting to end state discrimination against Macedonia's ethnic Albanians, who represent a third of the country's two million people.
NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson praised the Macedonian government's decision to proceed with the peace process, and the European Union showed its support by offering increased aid to Macedonia if the sides continue to cooperate.
"With this vote, the democratically elected representatives of the people of (Macedonia) are bringing their country closer to the European family of nations," Robertson said in a statement from Brussels.
Despite the continuation of the peace process, all parties are concerned that violence could erupt once again after NATO completes its mission. Macedonians are suspicious that the rebels have hidden weapons, and ethnic Albanians fear that the government will not ratify the peace plan at the end of the month, in which case the rebels would resume their war.
Many Macedonian nationalists, resenting Western parties for pushing Macedonian leaders to sign last month's peace accord, have threatened to block or weaken key reform clauses when the plan is up for ratification.
To guard against a relapse into violence, some Western officials have suggested installing an international security force in the region.