Macedonia's emergency coalition government faltered Thursday after the prime minister offered to meet ethnic Albanians' demands to change the constitution but then found himself facing vehement objections from another party's leader.
Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski said Wednesday that if Macedonia wants to avoid further bloodshed, it must change its constitution to upgrade the status of the ethnic Albanian minority--a key request by rebels fighting government troops in the country's north.
But his remarks--a major shift in the government's tough position on ethnic Albanian demands--angered a key Slavic leader in his national unity government.
Branko Crvenkovski, the leader of the Social Democratic Alliance, threatened to bolt the government. He warned that the coalition "might fall apart" if Albanians were granted equal rights.
Georgievski said the changes could include declaring ethnic Albanians a "second constituent nation," putting them on equal footing with majority Slavic Macedonians. Albanian would become an official language, alongside Macedonian.
There was no immediate reaction from the rebels to Georgievski's statement.
Meanwhile, President Boris Trajkovski's security advisor said an amnesty plan for the rebels had been outlined in a letter to George Robertson, secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
The plan would grant amnesty to some rebels, but guerrillas involved in leading or organizing the insurgency or those responsible for killing Macedonian soldiers or committing other atrocities would be excluded.
Ali Ahmeti, political leader of the guerrilla National Liberation Army, said in a statement that the proposal must be examined by "international courts."
As the political maneuvering continued, government forces and the rebels exchanged sporadic machine gun and mortar fire and squabbled over how thousands of civilians trapped in the battle zone should be evacuated.
Fighting broke out around the villages of Matejce and Otlja, about 13 miles northeast of Skopje, the capital, army spokesman Blagoja Markovski said.
A soldier ferrying water to guards on the border with the Yugoslav province of Kosovo was killed when his vehicle ran over a land mine, Markovski said.