A trio of top international officials arrived in Macedonia today amid a lull in fighting, with hopes of reviving deadlocked peace talks. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports that NATO's special envoy has negotiated a withdrawal by the Albanian insurgents to the positions they held prior to the 5 July cease-fire.
Prague, 26 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- NATO Secretary-General George Robertson, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, and OSCE chairman Mircea Geoana arrived in Skopje today in a bid to help revive talks among the country's Macedonian and Albanian political leaders.
Talks have been deadlocked for more than a week due to disagreements over the status of the Albanian language in Macedonia. EU and U.S. mediators last week won Albanian approval and Macedonian condemnation for their proposal to grant the Albanian language special rights while retaining Macedonian as the country's official language.
Robertson and Solana had postponed their scheduled Skopje visit one week ago after Macedonian leaders denounced the plan. Geoana, who was scheduled to arrive in Macedonia yesterday, postponed his own visit by a day following anti-Western violence that erupted in Skopje on the night of 24 July after Albanian rebels ousted Macedonian villagers from their homes in six villages northeast of Tetovo.
Geoana today tried to dispel the suspicion among some Macedonians that the international community is doing nothing to stop the fighting. The OSCE chief said: "The international community is not responsible for the tragic events in Macedonia. On the contrary, it is trying to facilitate a peaceful solution."
Robertson told reporters today on arriving in Skopje: "We want to show the parties in the conflict the cohesion, unity, and strength of the international community toward achieving peace in Macedonia." Robertson also praised the NATO-brokered agreement that today saw the start of withdrawals of ethnic Albanian militants from positions in the northwest of the country.
NATO's special envoy Peter Feith reached the agreement yesterday with Ali Ahmeti -- the political representative of the insurgent National Liberation Army, or UCK -- for the rebels to pull back from the villages they have seized in the three weeks since Ahmeti agreed to a NATO-brokered cease-fire.
Robertson said the agreement was cause for optimism:
"The withdrawal is now underway. That was a decision taken by other people [the UCK]. But it's obviously a very hopeful sign as we come here today to back up two critical negotiators, [EU special envoy] Monsieur [Francois] Leotard and [U.S. special envoy] Mr. [James] Pardew, who have done an extensive job. And I would simply remind you that the president [Boris Trajkovski] has said 95 percent is agreed, so all that is needed is 5 percent of agreement and the country can avoid civil war and can return to peace."
Getting peace negotiations back on track, Robertson added, could "save this country from the killing and carnage that has become the hallmark of Balkan civil war."
The country's official news agency MIA today quoted a senior Defense Ministry official as saying that Albanian insurgents are withdrawing from the Tetovo-Jazince highway and are pulling out of the ethnic Macedonian villages that they have taken. The official says the conditions have been established for the return of citizens to six abandoned villages.
But in the Poroj area to the northeast of Tetovo, a local UCK commander who goes by the name of Leka told Reuters it was impossible for his forces to retreat. Some of Leka's fighters are from Poroj; a few have had family members killed in the fighting and are insisting on remaining in order to protect their relatives. In the UCK commander's words: "We cannot leave wives and children in the hands of the Tigers and Wolves" -- a reference to two Macedonian special force units.
Nevertheless, state television announced at midday that displaced villagers should report to a location in Skopje in the early afternoon to be bused back to their villages under EU and OSCE escort with NATO allegedly guaranteeing their safe return home.
In a separate, official statement, the Defense Ministry also said that no armed provocations were registered from midnight until early this morning, although Albanian insurgents continue to move and regroup well south of Tetovo, near Gostivar as well as around Ribnica on the southeastern slopes of Mount Korab on the Albanian border. The Lipkovo/Kumanovo front was similarly quiet, with UCK units reportedly regrouping in the area of Slupcane and Nikustak.
Government spokesman Antonio Milososki's denunciation of the West on 24 July and his accusations of NATO backing the Albanian insurgents have drawn widespread condemnation.
Solana was quick to deny Milososki's allegations on arrival at Skopje airport today: "The team which is working here is very compact and there is no disagreement among them." Defense Minister Vlado Buckovski says his ministry completely dissociates itself from Milososki's statements.
"The Defense Ministry insists that it has maintained excellent cooperation with NATO, especially with [special envoy and peace mediator] Peter Feith, in working to bring back peace and stability to the region."
Milososki, known for his ultranationalist views, told reporters yesterday he had been speaking on his own behalf rather than for the government or prime minister.
His boss, Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski, for his part has been a hawk in the five-month-old conflict. He sent an open letter to President Boris Trajkovski this week calling on the president to order the joint forces of the Macedonian Army and police to stop what he described as "ethnic cleansing carried out against the Macedonian people."
But Social Democratic party leader Branko Crvenkovski is calling on all the country's top politicians, both Macedonian and Albanian, to stop wasting time and try to find a solution.
"I call on [President Boris] Trajkovski, Georgievski, [Democratic Party of Albanians leader Arben] Xhaferi, and [Party for Democratic Prosperity leader Imer] Imeri, to ensure that from now on, whether individually or together, all the meetings on political dialogue remain on track. If anyone thinks that that isn't possible for security reasons, then make it possible and show that we are ready to deal with the security of Tetovo and the surrounding region."
The White House yesterday called on Macedonia's leaders to act responsibly. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer says President George W. Bush believes it is time for officials to show leadership, to focus anew and strengthen the initiatives to secure peace in Macedonia to ensure that the cease-fire goes back into effect.
"The president [Bush] does not believe there is any military solution to the problem of Macedonia. There is only a peaceful solution, and that reinforces the result of the president's visit to Kosovo. Kosovo is a reminder about the dangers that can take place throughout the world as a result of ethnic tension [and] ethnic strife, and that's why the president is again urging the parties of Macedonia to come together, to honor the cease-fire and to take the steps necessary to continue the political dialogue."
Fleischer says: "there is no alternative to political dialogue in Macedonia."