As a cease-fire in Macedonia negotiated by the West got off to a rocky start Friday and then took hold, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana urged the country's politicians to move "at the speed of sound" to hammer out a deal to head off civil war.
"I'm more optimistic now of how things are going," Solana told reporters in Brussels. "We're moving at a fast rhythm because we would like to see if a possibility exists to get the political dialogue finalized as soon as possible."
There were sporadic clashes early Friday, when the truce was supposed to take effect, but contested regions of northwestern Macedonia were calm by daybreak. The cease-fire between ethnic Albanian guerrillas and Macedonian security forces apparently held at least until nightfall, with no daytime incidents reported.
The truce is meant to improve the atmosphere for ongoing negotiations within the multi-party and multiethnic Macedonian government aimed at granting greater rights for the country's large ethnic Albanian minority and thereby persuading the rebels to lay down their arms.
North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops will be able to step in and start disarming the ethnic Albanian guerrillas of the National Liberation Army, Solana said, if three conditions are met: the cease-fire holds, the political process moves forward and the rebels accept a process for disarming.
NATO recently approved a standby plan for deploying 3,000 alliance soldiers to disarm the guerrillas--if the rebels sign a peace deal. About one-third of the force would be composed of British troops. Germany, Italy and Greece are each expected to send 300 soldiers, and France, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Turkey and the United States also have offered troops.
The Western alliance already has troops in Macedonia providing logistical support for NATO-led peacekeeping forces in Kosovo, the adjacent province of Yugoslavia's dominant republic, Serbia.
Potential risks for NATO troops were reflected in an incident late Thursday when unidentified gunmen fired at a convoy of German vehicles shortly before the truce went into effect, causing minor damage to three vehicles but no injuries.
Two newly appointed trouble-shooters, U.S. envoy James Pardew and EU envoy Francois Leotard, shuttled between ethnic Albanian and Macedonian Slav political leaders Friday in an effort to push the negotiations forward.
Issues under discussion include constitutional changes and other measures to grant ethnic Albanians greater rights, 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.
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. Macedonian Slavs generally see that demand as a threat to national unity.
Ethnic Albanians make up at least a quarter of the nation's 2 million people.
The growing Western involvement in Macedonia's crisis so far has been welcomed by most ethnic Albanian factions, which hope it will boost their leverage in negotiations.
"A cease-fire creates a better climate for political dialogue under international mediation," Aziz Pollozhani, the vice president of the ethnic Albanian Democratic Prosperity Party, said Friday.
But the growing U.S. and EU role has been treated with suspicion by sectors of the Macedonian Slav public that favor a more aggressive military response to the guerrillas.
The risk of a backlash was reflected in an incident Friday in the northwestern Macedonian city of Tetovo involving U.S. Ambassador M. Michael Einik. He met with the city's ethnic Albanian mayor and representatives of Macedonian Slavs who had been chased out of their homes this week when guerrillas captured villages in the nearby mountains. Afterward, a small and angry crowd mobbed Einik while he was in his car, Forte Plus radio in Tetovo reported.
The crowd included displaced people from the villages, and they kicked, spat at and pounded on the car, according to reports from Tetovo.
Still, NATO Secretary-General George Robertson expressed optimism as he spoke with reporters in Brussels. "There is more light at the end of the tunnel than there has been for some time," Robertson said after meeting Macedonian Foreign Minister Ilinka Mitreva. "It's a major gain for the people of Macedonia and the wider region."
The guerrillas, who launched their insurgency in February, say they are simply fighting for greater ethnic Albanian rights. But 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 next 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.
In a reflection of tougher Western efforts to cut off funds, supplies and other forms of support for the guerrillas, five high-ranking members of the Kosovo Protection Corps were suspended from that organization Friday for suspected involvement in the Macedonian insurgency. The corps is a successor to the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army, whose battle against Yugoslav forces helped set the stage for NATO's 1999 intervention in the province.
The suspensions came after President Bush issued an executive order with a blacklist banning entry into the U.S. by 23 ethnic Albanians accused by the White House of involvement in "violent or obstructionist actions."
The five corps officers, all former guerrilla leaders during the 1998-99 war in Kosovo, were identified as Daut Haradinaj, Ramiz Lladrovci, Sami Lushtaku, Rrustem Mustafa and Rexhep Selimi.