The government of Macedonia and ethnic Albanian guerrillas agreed Thursday to a Western-brokered truce, bringing hope that the country's slide toward civil war can be reversed. But diplomats warned that any true solution to the nation's political and military crisis remains far off.
The cease-fire is meant to improve the atmosphere for ongoing negotiations within the Macedonian government aimed at granting greater rights to the country's large ethnic Albanian minority and thereby persuading the rebels to lay down their arms. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has approved a standby plan to deploy 3,000 troops to disarm the guerrillas if they sign on to a peace deal.
Scheduled to take effect this morning just after midnight, the truce "is a major step forward," Nikola Dimitrov, national security advisor to President Boris Trajkovski, told reporters in Skopje, the Macedonian capital.
"It is not the end of the crisis," Dimitrov said. "But it will create peaceful conditions for political dialogue, and, of course, it is one of the preconditions for the disarmament process to be realized. . . . We think and we hope this will bring peace to the Macedonian citizens."
In the hours before the scheduled launch of the cease-fire, fighting raged near the northwestern city of Tetovo. Rebels fired mortar shells from mountainside strongholds at police positions near the city's sports stadium, hitting some houses. Eight civilians were injured, five seriously, a hospital reported.
The government used helicopter gunships and tanks to target rebel positions. Each side accused the other of trying to grab land before the truce took effect.
The fighting occurred near the border with Kosovo, a province of Serbia, the dominant republic of Yugoslavia. NATO peacekeepers are already on duty in the predominantly ethnic Albanian province.
Although the guerrillas agreed to the cease-fire, they have not been invited to the talks among ethnic Albanian and Macedonian Slav politicians over how to revise the constitution to deal with minority grievances. The United States and the European Union have put enormous pressure on the negotiators to come to a deal.
Political leaders on both sides appear to be nearing agreement on constitutional changes and other measures to grant greater rights to ethnic Albanians, such as wider use of the Albanian language in official business, more representation in government institutions and decentralization to give more power to local governments.
But ethnic Albanian leaders also want constitutional reforms that would require some decisions to be approved not just by a majority of parliament but also by a majority of ethnic Albanian representatives in parliament.
Macedonian Slav leaders have been vehemently opposed to any such solution. But ethnic Albanians, who make up at least a quarter of Macedonia's 2 million population, say they need such protections to avoid being constantly outvoted by the Slav majority.
In a reflection of the refusal by Macedonian Slav leaders to even consider talking to rebel leaders, the cease-fire came not as a direct deal between the warring parties but in separate deals that representatives of NATO concluded first with the rebels and then with the Macedonian government.
Ali Ahmeti, political leader of the ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army, signed a truce document with alliance representatives Wednesday evening in the southern Kosovo city of Prizren. Then, Macedonia's chief of general staff, Lt. Gen. Pande Petrevski, signed a cease-fire agreement with NATO on Thursday in Skopje.
The truce came as two newly appointed trouble-shooters, U.S. envoy James Pardew and EU envoy Francois Leotard, began diplomatic work in the Macedonian capital. "The team of experts will now continue in the following days to work very hard with all the parties to obtain some progress in the constitutional fields," Leotard told reporters.
"A more elaborate, detailed document will be required" for disarmament of the guerrillas, "and I suspect that that will be difficult to achieve until we get either a completed political process or get very far along on one," Pardew told BBC World News after announcement of the cease-fire.
Macedonian Defense Minister Vlado Buckovski held out hope of rapid progress, but he too noted that everything depends on the political negotiations among different parties in the country's multiethnic unity government.
"With the cease-fire, we've made the right conditions for the start of the most difficult phase of the peace plan--the disarmament of the Albanian terrorists," Buckovski said. "The expectation is that, if there's progress in the political talks, we could see the first NATO troops here by July 15 and the start of disarmament by the end of the month."
It appeared unlikely, however, that the peace process would move that quickly.
The Western alliance's role "has to be in what we call a benign and consensual environment," NATO spokesman Paul Barnard said in Skopje. "We are not here to enforce the disarmament."
In an interview with The Times in Berlin, German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping hailed the cease-fire agreement as another stride toward stabilizing the Balkans after more than a decade of turmoil.
"This is very substantial progress we are making in the Balkans," he said after the agreement. "There is now a chance for the whole of southeastern Europe to be on the right way toward Europe and closer cooperation and integration into European structures and institutions. Two years ago, that would have been called illusion."
The guerrillas, who launched their insurgency in February, say they are simply fighting for greater ethnic Albanian rights after peaceful political efforts failed to win gains that they would consider sufficient. Macedonian Slav leaders charge that the rebels' real aim is to split the country.
Heavily ethnic Albanian areas of Macedonia lie in the western and northwestern parts of the country, close to Albania and Kosovo. Guerrilla-held territory lies adjacent to the Serbian province, which has served as a base for rebels despite growing efforts by NATO-led peacekeepers there to cut off cross-border supply routes.
Many observers believe that at least some of the insurgents hope to merge heavily ethnic Albanian areas of Macedonia with Albania or a future independent Kosovo, forming a "Greater Albania" or "Greater Kosovo." Many Albanians in the region feel that when the Ottoman Empire broke up in the early 20th century, the great powers of Europe cheated them out of a unified homeland.
Such ideas of redrawing national borders in the Balkans are anathema to the major Western powers, which fear a chain reaction both of broader fighting in the region and stronger demands for boundary changes by other groups across Europe.
"Because of the political stability of all the Balkans, the political consequences for the stability of Yugoslavia as far as [the republic of] Montenegro is concerned, and for Kosovo, there is a full spectrum of reasons for being interested in the security and stability of Macedonia," Scharping said.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and NATO Secretary-General George Robertson issued a statement calling on both sides to make the Macedonian truce work by acting "with utmost discipline and restraint in avoiding incidents that could lead to a return to violence."
Times staff writer Carol J. Williams in Berlin contributed to this report.