Three members of a European Union cease-fire monitoring team in Macedonia died when their vehicle was blown into a ravine by a land mine, authorities said Friday.
The team, composed of a Norwegian, a Slovak and their ethnic Albanian translator, had disappeared Thursday after crossing into territory held by ethnic Albanian guerrillas. The deaths were a fresh blow to Western efforts to broker a peace settlement between the rebels and the Macedonian government.
The blast was caused by "a mine or explosive device," said Tihomir Ilievski, a Macedonian government spokesman, who said the incident occurred in rebel-held territory about three miles from the closest Macedonian security outpost.
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana expressed deep regret for the deaths, the first among international officials trying to help secure peace in Macedonia. "The EU will not be deflected in its determination to help bring lasting peace and stability to the region," Solana said in a statement.
Western mediators have been pressing ethnic Albanian and Macedonian Slav politicians to reach agreement on reforms aimed at defusing the guerrilla insurgency, which erupted in February. But the talks appear close to deadlock.
The dead were identified as Norwegian Bjarte Gundersen, Slovak army Lt. Col. Lubomir Orsag, and translator Valon Sadik. The incident took place in the mountains above the northwestern city of Tetovo.
"I'm certain that the loss of these three young lives will be neither in vain nor forgotten," Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski said in a statement praising the European monitors' mission as "an important factor for overcoming the crisis."
"This tragedy points out how big a risk people who are working for the interests of all citizens of the Republic of Macedonia are facing," Trajkovski said.
Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski charged earlier this week that Western-backed revisions to a draft of proposed political reforms had gone much too far toward the ethnic Albanians' position. He accused Western mediators of "trying to break up the Macedonian state."
If political leaders still manage to reach agreement on constitutional reforms and other issues, guerrilla leaders will then be asked to agree to a peace deal and disarm their force. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization recently approved a standby plan for deploying 3,000 alliance soldiers to help with that disarmament.
Talks on political reform continued Friday at the technical level. While representatives of the Macedonian Slav and ethnic Albanian sides did not meet with each other, they held discussions with international experts.
There were, however, no signs that the gulf between the two sides was narrowing.
"Some of the [proposed] solutions are unacceptable," Radmila Sekerinska, an expert on the Macedonian Slav side, told reporters. "Imposing dubious solutions might mean destabilization of Macedonia."
Naser Zyberi, an expert on the ethnic Albanian side, stressed that Albanian must become an official language and that constitutional reforms to strengthen minority rights are needed. Both of these are well-known positions. But in a comment that could presage additional demands, he added that there are also "many other issues that have not been adequately solved."
"There are laws that we think have to be changed," Zyberi said, without specifying which he had in mind.
Ali Ahmeti, the political leader of the guerrilla's National Liberation Army, which is not represented in the reform talks, was quoted Friday by the independent Macedonian-language newspaper Utrinski Vesnik as stating that ethnic Albanians cannot compromise any more than they already have. But the most recent draft document, which triggered Prime Minister Georgievski's outburst of anger, could form the basis for a peace deal, Ahmeti said.
"The last document contains all the things with which you can end the war," he told the daily newspaper. "It's the minimum of all minimums for the demands of Albanians."
In a sign of shakiness for the cease-fire, launched July 6, the Defense Ministry charged Friday that guerrillas have set up a new mortar position in Lavce, a mountain village just above Tetovo. The ministry warned that if it is not dismantled, security forces will open fire.