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Macedonia: Fresh Clashes Cast Shadow Over Negotiations

Macedonia's peace talks were temporarily suspended today after ethnic Albanian guerrillas seized strategic positions in and around the northwestern city of Tetovo. The suspension came as political leaders were expected to be nearing resolution of their last remaining differences over a peace accord. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz reports.

Prague, 8 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Macedonia's peace talks have been suspended after ethnic Albanian guerrillas captured positions along the roads leading to the south and east of Tetovo.

Fighting is reported in the north, south, and central parts of the city, with guerrilla roadblocks cutting off government reinforcements from Skopje.

The Macedonian government says 10 soldiers were killed and three were wounded today when their convoy was ambushed by ethnic Albanian fighters on the highway that links Skopje to Tetovo. The casualty toll is the highest in a single day for government troops since an ethnic Albanian insurgency began nearly six months ago.

The clash erupted just hours before leaders of the country's main political parties were to resume negotiations on the last unresolved issues of a political agreement aimed at ending the insurgency. It also comes a day after Macedonian police killed five suspected guerrilla fighters during a raid on a house in an ethnic Albanian neighborhood of Skopje.

The Western mediators at the talks, U.S. envoy James Pardew and EU envoy Francois Leotard, issued a joint statement pleading for the restoration of a month-old cease-fire. The statement says it is now all the more important to quickly conclude the political accord.

Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski has called an emergency meeting of his security council.

Government spokesman Antonio Milososki described today's attack as part of a rebel offensive. He says ethnic Albanian fighters are descending from the mountains in an attempt to capture additional territory in the north of the country.

The guerrillas already control several villages and some roads in the hills near Tetovo. Reports say guerrilla fighters today also seized a series of buildings within Tetovo's city limits -- an area that previously had been under government control.

The attack on the convoy was close to the place where Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski's car came under fire by ethnic Albanian fighters late last month.

In today's fighting, government helicopters returned fire at suspected guerrilla positions in the hills on both sides of the highway. Police and army reinforcements also were deployed. But after more than four hours of fighting, correspondents say the reinforcements had not yet reached the pinned-down convoy.

In Brussels, NATO ambassadors in the North Atlantic Council were discussing the status of political talks in Macedonia -- which could lead to the deployment of alliance peacekeepers -- when the attack began.

NATO spokesman Robert Pszczel told RFE/RL that the ambassadors were briefed with press reports and statements from the government in Skopje. But Pszczel says it is too early to assess what impact the violence might have on the peace process.

"Any incidents which threaten the cease-fire [and] which threaten the things that essentially have already been agreed, are of course extremely worrying. So we certainly don't want to see any incident of this kind."

Today's talks at the Macedonian resort town of Ohrid were expected to focus on possible changes to the country's constitution that would enshrine a series of Western-brokered compromises agreed during the last week.

Before today's clash, state television and Western news agencies quoted officials close to the talks as saying they expected to resolve the last remaining differences on the accord as soon as today. There also have been unconfirmed reports of a possible signing ceremony Skopje on 10 August that would include NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.

But NATO officials told RFE/RL this afternoon that they would not announce any trip to Skopje by the secretary-general this week unless negotiators first reach agreement on the political accord.

Yesterday, two high-ranking NATO envoys met with Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski on a mission that appeared to have cleared the way for the negotiators at Ohrid to focus on constitutional issues.

The talks hit a snag on 6 August after Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski's VMRO party demanded that guerrillas hand over their weapons before any political accord is formally ratified by parliament.

Officials in Skopje say NATO Ambassador Hansjoerg Eiff and the alliance's special envoy, Peter Feith, delivered Trajkovski "verbal guarantees" from Robertson -- including assurances to the government that ethnic Albanian fighters would disarm in exchange for an amnesty.

Eiff has confirmed that they discussed a timetable for collecting weapons, ammunition, and uniforms from the ethnic Albanian fighters. And Macedonian officials reportedly agreed, in principle, to a "selective amnesty" for ethnic Albanian fighters not responsible for war crimes.

Macedonian officials also say that Feith showed a draft declaration to Trajkovski that guerrilla leaders are expected to sign. That declaration says that the self-styled National Liberation Army (UCK) accepts amnesty offers for all former members of the group who voluntarily disarm, with the exception of those who have committed war crimes. It remains unclear whether the government in Skopje will accept the exact wording of the draft declaration.

NATO officials have refused to confirm specific details about the meeting between Trajkovski and the alliance envoys. But NATO spokeswoman Ariane Quentier said the meeting did address details of a future NATO peacekeeping deployment as well as the amnesty issue:

"Of course the [talks] were about the military deployments that involve an amnesty. The details and the answer of the Macedonians, I don't think, is to be commented upon [by NATO]. We did not make any mention about that [to the press]. The Macedonian government made mention about this whole story of amnesty guarantees and so on. Our view is that as long as you are negotiating, you don't have to put on the public field what you are negotiating because that's not always so productive."

Quentier said NATO considers a request made six weeks ago by Trajkovski to be a sufficient invitation for the presence of NATO troops. But she said the political accord must first be agreed upon and that guerrilla fighters must agree to disarm.

"We are not involved in a political settlement, but we hope that there will be a political settlement and that the parties will get their act together. Once there is a political settlement, we'll respond solidly to the request of President Trajkovski from 14 June. We've got 3,500 men ready to be deployed to disarm the rebels, provided there is a military technical agreement which will involve an amnesty."

Leotard confirmed earlier today that negotiations are close to completion after compromises on the most contentious issues -- including the use of Albanian as an official language and the restructuring of police forces.