After several days of localized clashes, ethnic Albanian guerrillas and the Macedonian government agreed Wednesday to restore a cease-fire, with the rebels promising in the NATO-brokered deal that they will withdraw to positions held early this month, Western diplomats said.
The agreement, signed by the defense and interior ministers and the political representative of the rebels, restored hope that reform talks aimed at addressing ethnic Albanian grievances might move forward. There was some uncertainty, however, whether all guerrilla units were willing to honor the deal, which was due to take effect at 6 a.m. today.
Meanwhile, NATO Secretary-General George Robertson announced that he and European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana will visit Macedonia today to push forward Western mediation efforts aimed at heading off the threat of civil war.
"Any efforts to resolve the situation militarily can only result in the wreckage of the country and the inflicting of grave civilian casualties," Robertson said in Brussels. "The situation . . . is critical."
The mood among Western mediators was boosted, however, by the deal to restore the truce, which had been shattered in the region of the northwestern city of Tetovo, the scene of several days of fierce clashes. Thousands of frightened people fled the city Wednesday, before word of the restored cease-fire began to spread.
"There has been an agreement," a NATO official said Wednesday evening, speaking on condition that he not be further identified. "The agreement . . . is to go back to the July 5 positions" held when the cease-fire began. He called the deal "very significant."
"A lot of people had lost a lot of hope that the cease-fire could be continued or restored," the NATO official said. "This quite possibly breathes some new life into it and is an opportunity to settle this peacefully."
The key focus of the agreement, he said, calls on the rebels to withdraw to at least 1600 feet from a road leading from Tetovo to the country's border with Kosovo, a province of Serbia, the dominant republic in Yugoslavia. North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led peacekeeping forces are based in Kosovo, which is under U.N. administration.
Ethnic Macedonians have fled villages along these roads in recent days as their homes came under rebel control.
"All the displaced persons from those towns will be allowed to return," the NATO official said.
The key figure in mediating the deal was NATO special envoy Pieter Feith. It was signed by Defense Minister Vlado Buckovski, Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski and Ali Ahmeti, political representative of the rebel National Liberation Army, Western diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Macedonian state television, which reported the agreement by quoting unnamed diplomatic sources, said Macedonian civilians were expected to begin returning to their homes this afternoon.
Earlier Wednesday, Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski and Buckovski made statements sharply distancing themselves from remarks Tuesday by a government spokesman who had severely criticized the Western role in attempting to mediate the ethnic conflict here.
"We should welcome the role of NATO in our country," Trajkovski said. "We hold in high regard the contribution of NATO in cutting the illegal traffic of people and weapons across the border [from Kosovo], which they have been doing with great efficiency every day."
Trajkovski also charged that the ethnic Albanian rebels had launched a campaign to drive ethnic Macedonians out of guerrilla-held territory. In resisting this, "our country has the support of the international community," he said.
"We have to realize that only partnership with the international community can restore peace and stability in Macedonia," he said.
The president's praise for Western efforts came shortly after NATO-led peacekeepers in Kosovo announced unusually great success in arresting suspected guerrillas and capturing weaponry.
The peacekeepers Wednesday reported arresting 62 suspected guerrillas. That included 55 men detained Tuesday morning near Prizren in southern Kosovo. The men had been traveling with 50 mules from Macedonia to Albania by way of Kosovo, a spokesman said. In a separate incident, seven people leading horses carrying ammunition and weapons were arrested near the Macedonian border.
Tetovo Mayor Murtezan Ismaili, an ethnic Albanian, complained bitterly Wednesday about the warfare that had engulfed his city but welcomed word of the cease-fire deal.
"From this 'free shooting,' as I call it, four bullets ended up in our offices," Ismaili said. "That implies a permanent risk for the lives of the civilians."
Ismaili also charged that paramilitary groups were being formed by ethnic Macedonian civilians.
"But we shouldn't lose optimism because we heard today that the NATO representative, together with the political representative of the NLA, has reached an agreement for a cease-fire," Ismaili said. "We hope that, after all this, there will be the political strength to reach a democratic solution for all the problems in Macedonia."