- The Washington Times - Friday, September 7, 2001

SKOPJE, Macedonia — Macedonia's peace process cleared a crucial test yesterday as parliament backed its overall framework and opened the way for NATO to resume collecting weapons from ethnic Albanian rebels.
The vote passed 91-19, with two abstentions, after a nearly weeklong process in which many lawmakers assailed the pact but conceded that the consequences of defiance were too grave.
NATO immediately began talks with the rebels on picking a site to restart weapons collection, possibly as early as today, said NATO spokesman Maj. Barry Johnson.
NATO already has taken more than a third of the 3,300-piece arsenal to be surrendered by the National Liberation Army, which is seeking greater ethnic Albanian rights.
Parliament's backing was vital to the effort to end the 6-month-old conflict. But the assembly was only asked whether to back the general concept of the accord: granting wider ethnic Albanian rights in exchange for rebel disarmament.
The difficult — and potentially disruptive — details come next. Lawmakers will now have to decide on the specific constitutional changes.
Under the accord, brokered by American and European mediators, ethnic Albanians would receive greater political autonomy and authority to use Albanian as the official language in some areas. Ethnic Albanians make up about a third of the nation's 2 million people.
The European Union has offered the nation increased aid if the peace process moves forward. NATO Secretary-General George Robertson yesterday praised the parliament's "historic" vote.
"With this vote, the democratically elected representatives of the people of [Macedonia] are bringing their country closer to the European family of nations," Mr. Robertson said in a statement from Brussels.
After the vote, Macedonian Defense Minister Vlado Buckovski said there is "evidence the process of disbanding the NLA is under way."
"I hope this will discourage even the most extremist elements among them from continuing any kind of action," he said.
"I am an optimist … both sides are fed up with war," said NLA spokesman Nazim Beqiri.
But there were signs the rebels were prepared for any contingency in case the deal stumbles later.
A group of fighters, holding semiautomatic rifles, trained in formation in Lipkovo, about 12 miles northeast of Skopje.
"We are brave soldiers," they chanted.


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