Ethnic Albanian Rebels Drop Back

The agreement may ease tensions and raise peace prospects after faltering mediation efforts threatened to deteriorate into full-scale civil war. The NATO-brokered deal calls for the rebels to drop back by dawn Thursday.

Earlier, Macedonia issued a statement warning of military action if the ethnic Albanians did not retreat from Tetovo. Clashes there had broken an already shaky truce. And the rebels apparently fortified their positions during the cease-fire.

More than 8,000 people fled the area over the last 24 hours, fearing more violence. Many headed to Skopje, Macedonia’s capital, 25 miles away.

Describing the situation as “critical,” NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson planned to fly to Macedonia tomorrow with EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana. Robertson said that “any efforts to resolve the situation militarily can only result in the wreckage of the country.”

The Macedonian government has accused NATO and the EU of siding with ethnic Albanian rebels during three weeks of talks since the cease-fire. The government demanded that Western diplomats blame the minority Albanians for the latest cease-fire violations.

“Who is guilty of breaking the cease-fire?” spokesman Antonio Milosovski asked. “If they [Western negotiators] do not respond, then it will be clear that they are protecting those who attacked democratic Macedonia.”

Nationalist Macedonians showed their disgust with Western negotiators last night by attacking foreign embassies in the capital of Skopje. Protesters threw stones at the U.S. embassy, smashed entrances to the British and German embassies, and burned U.N. vehicles.

Robertson said that “the only side NATO is on is that of democracy, peace.”

President Boris Trajkovski appeared to counter the more nationalist sentiments.

“We have to realize that only partnership with the international community can restore peace and stability in Macedonia,” he said.

Greater rights

Before today’s announcement of the rebel pull-back, recent clashes had diminished hope for an end to the 5-month conflict. The ethnic Albanians’ National Liberation Army launched their revolt in February, saying they wanted constitutional reforms and greater political rights.

Western diplomats have suggested the Macedonian government appears less interested in greater Albanian rights than a nationalist agenda. Macedonia argues the rebels are linked to Kosovo’s militants and have a territorial agenda.

Ethnic Albanians make up about one-third of Macedonia’s two million people.