- The Washington Times - Monday, August 13, 2001

SKOPJE, Macedonia Macedonia's rival political leaders signed a landmark peace accord today aimed at ending six months of bloody conflict and clearing the way for NATO troops to disarm ethnic Albanian rebels.

Political leaders representing the Balkan country's Macedonian majority and its minority ethnic Albanian population formally endorsed the agreement, which gives ethnic Albanians a larger share of power in the police ranks, parliament and education.

The deal also paves the way for NATO to send in 3,500 troops, including Americans, to disarm the rebels a potentially risky mission that the alliance insists it will only launch if a cease-fire is sustained.

NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson, who attended the signing, said he would convene a session of NATO's ruling body tonight in Brussels. He said he hoped the alliance could move “very swiftly indeed'' on launching the mission.

There were no reports of fighting during the day today, but before dawn Macedonian troops and ethnic Albanian rebels clashed in heavy fighting even after the government called a cease-fire last night.

The rebels, who launched their insurgency in February, were not involved in the negotiations that led to the peace deal. Their political leader, Ali Ahmeti, has said the insurgents would abide by the accord, although some commanders have expressed pessimism over it.

Mr. Robertson and European Union envoy Javier Solana watched as President Boris Trajkovski and the leaders of the four largest parties, two ethnic Albanian and two Macedonian, signed the accord. The two mediators Francois Leotard of France and James Pardew of the United States also signed the 15-page document at Mr. Trajkovski's residence.

Mr. Robertson called the deal “a remarkable moment for the history of Macedonia. This day marks the entry of Macedonia into modern, mainstream Europe.''

“It's a good sign,'' President Bush said of the signing, speaking to reporters at his ranch in Texas. “But now they need to lay down their arms so we can implement'' the deal.

Mr. Robertson said there must be a “durable cease-fire'' and a clear commitment from the rebels to disarm before NATO troops can be deployed. He gave no timetable for deployment.

The British-led mission, dubbed Operation Essential Harvest, would last 30 days and would include troops from the United States, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Greece, the Netherlands, Norway, Turkey, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

Mr. Robertson was to brief the North Atlantic Council, which must approve the mission. The council was not expected to decide during tonight's session. Military advisers were to arrive in Skopje tomorrow to review logistics, Mr. Robertson said.

Sources close to the talks said the signing ceremony was postponed for over an hour because of last-minute bickering over an ethnic Albanian demand that the accord spell out amnesty for all rebels who did not commit war crimes during the fighting. The demand was accepted.

“After this day, there should be no reason for fighting,'' said Mr. Pardew.

In New York, the U.N. Security Council called a meeting today to endorse the peace deal and ask all parties to abide by it.

The militants say they seek more rights for ethnic Albanians, who account for about a third of Macedonia's population of 2 million. The Macedonian government contends the rebels simply want to seize territory.

After a weekend of heavy fighting, Macedonia's government reinstated a cease-fire that had gone ignored over the past two weeks. Mr. Trajkovski ordered government forces to stop shooting yesterday “to show goodwill and give a chance'' to the peace deal, state television reported.

Still, fighting continued overnight in the north. Heavy detonations could be heard until 3 a.m. throughout Skopje.

The army accused the insurgents today of firing mortars and machine guns at police positions near the rebel strongholds of Slupcane and Orizare.

Troops yesterday backed by tanks and warplanes fought the rebels on the outskirts the capital and several other fronts.

Government troops also pounded the ethnic Albanian village of Ljuboten, just three miles north of Skopje, with mortars and tank fire.

A rebel spokesman who goes by the name of Besniku, or Faith, said about 50 ethnic Albanian civilians had been killed over the last three days alone, but could not estimate rebel casualties.

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