- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 29, 2001

OHRID, Macedonia — The government and top ethnic Albanian leaders resumed talks yesterday on a peaceful end to a conflict that has driven thousands of people from their homes and threatened to engulf the country in civil war.
Under tight security, U.S. and European Union mediators and the feuding parties gathered at a presidential retreat on Lake Ohrid in southwestern Macedonia, a venue chosen in an attempt to avoid potentially hostile crowds in the capital, Skopje.
It was the first face-to-face meeting of key leaders since high-level talks collapsed more than a week ago. Western envoys hoped the two sides would build on lower-level discussions that took place over the past few days, and said they were focusing on a main sticking point — a proposal to make Albanian an official language.
Under a compromise being discussed, Albanian would become official only in areas where minority ethnic Albanians account for more than 20 percent of the population. The phrasing apparently was reworked in an attempt to make it more acceptable for majority Macedonians.
The language dispute cuts to the heart of the deep cultural differences between ethnic Albanians, who account for about a third of the Balkan country's 2 million people, and Macedonians of Slavic origin. Ethnic Albanian rebels started an insurgency in February, saying they were fighting for greater rights and recognition for their people.
The government says the rebels are linked to militants in neighboring Kosovo and has accused them of trying to carve out territory from Macedonia.
Yesterday's talks began with U.S. envoy James Pardew and his EU counterpart, Francois Leotard, on one side of the table and the Macedonian and ethnic Albanian delegations on the other.
The Macedonians were represented by President Boris Trajkovski, Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski and Branko Crvenkovski, the leader of the opposition Social Democratic Alliance. The ethnic Albanian representatives were Imer Imeri of the ethnic Albanian Party for Democratic Prosperity and Arben Xhaferi of the Democratic Party of Albanians.
"We're working very hard on a document. We're trying to resolve the differences but we're still away from a final agreement," said a Western diplomat close to the talks, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Earlier, the diplomat said Mr. Trajkovski had suggested Ohrid as "the best possible location to talk in a constructive atmosphere and in relative privacy" rather than in Skopje, where the atmosphere remained charged.
Army helicopter gunships made sweeping passes over the area as police deployed all over the sprawling grounds and police boats patrolled the lake.
Underscoring the tensions in the capital, about 50 Macedonians from the village of Tearce, 30 miles north of Tetovo, blocked a bridge over the Vardar River yesterday and demanded to speak to government officials. They accused ethnic Albanian militants of setting at least 20 homes afire.
"Terrorists are burning the village," said the group's leader, who gave his name only as Nebajsa T. "There's no one to help us. There's no army or police there."

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