Skopje, 6 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Macedonian parliament gave initial approval today to a package of constitutional reforms granting greater rights to ethnic Albanians in a bid to end seven months of conflict in the country. The vote passed 91-19 with two abstentions, following a nearly week-long debate in which many lawmakers attacked the Western-backed peace plan. The vote authorizes a special committee to rewrite key parts of the constitution to increase the civil rights of the ethnic Albanian minority.
Macedonian parliament speaker Stojan Andov announced the results of the vote in Skopje.
"A total o f 112 deputies voted. Ninety-one voted for, 19 voted against, two abstained. I declare that the decision to begin [work on] amending the Constitution of the Republic of Macedonia has been passed."
The package is to be submitted for ratification later this month. The initial approval clears the way for NATO troops to launch the second phase of an operation to collect 3,300 weapons from ethnic Albanian rebels.
The assembly passed the general concept of the Western-backed accord, which grants minority ethnic Albanians wider rights in exchange for the rebel disarmament. Lawmakers will now have to decide on specific constitutional changes in a new round of debate the parliament speaker said could begin within 10 days.
NATO spokesman Major Barry Johnson said NATO immediately began talks with the rebels for a site to restart the weapons collection, possibly as early as tomorrow.
NATO has already taken more than a third of the 3,300-piece arsenal to be surrendered by the National Liberation Army.
The Permanent Council of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe agreed today to expand its mission in Macedonia.