European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana held talks Thursday with Macedonian leaders and is expected back in the Balkan nation in the coming days in an effort to end a four-month guerrilla insurgency.
With ethnic Albanian rebels entrenched in a string of mountain villages near the nation's northwestern border, Macedonian politicians are deadlocked as they negotiate political and social reforms that might convince the guerrillas to lay down their arms.
After meeting with ethnic Albanian and Slav leaders, Solana expressed optimism that progress can be made on an agreement to head off civil war.
"I think we will be able to solve the problem," he told reporters. "I think that all of us will move only forward."
Imer Imeri, a key ethnic Albanian leader, predicted during a break in discussions that an accord can be reached.
"First we will start with easier subjects and then we will follow to more difficult ones," Imeri said. "We are heading in a real direction, and where we cannot make an agreement, we will seek advice" from foreign representatives.
Macedonia's national unity government, formed last month under foreign pressure, is split not only along ethnic Albanian and Slav lines, but also by political rivalries on either side of that divide. The rivalries are exacerbated by jockeying for advantage in parliamentary elections set for early next year, which makes it difficult for any party to compromise without risking loss of its power base.
The negotiations do not include representatives of the guerrillas, despite pleas by ethnic Albanian politicians that such participation is needed to achieve peace. Instead, the various factions are trying to agree on a plan that would sufficiently address ethnic Albanian grievances, hoping to undercut support for the guerrillas and encourage them to give up the fight.
A shaky truce reached June 11 expires early next week, and observers say it is unlikely to be extended without progress on a deal.
On Wednesday, Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski declared that ethnic Albanian politicians were making "unreal political demands" that would end up "cementing terrorist positions in temporarily occupied territories."
Ethnic Albanians are seeking constitutional revisions they say are necessary to give them equal status, including a recent proposal to re-create a vice presidential post to be filled by an ethnic Albanian. They also are seeking changes that would give their representatives veto power over major government decisions. Slav leaders such as Trajkovski say the demands amount to carving up the country.
Ethnic Albanians make up at least one-quarter of Macedonia's 2 million people, with the remainder mostly Slavs.
Meanwhile, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's supreme commander in Europe, U.S. Air Force Gen. Joseph W. Ralston, said Thursday that planning for a possible alliance peacekeeping mission to Macedonia is proceeding rapidly.
Alliance officials on Wednesday ordered the preparations for a force of about 3,000 soldiers who would help disarm the rebels if a peace agreement can be reached. The mission would be intended to last no more than a month.
It is possible that some members of the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo, a U.N.-administered province of Serbia in neighboring Yugoslavia, might join the mission, with fresh soldiers sent to replace them, he said.
Washington officials indicated last weekend that U.S. soldiers would not take part in a Macedonia mission, although a NATO spokesman who requested anonymity said Wednesday that the U.S. might provide logistical support.
However, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told lawmakers Wednesday that about 700 U.S. troops already in Macedonia to support existing American peacekeeping operations in the Balkans "could become a part of" any operation to collect rebel guns.
The U.S. and Europe "must do all we can to help the Macedonian people avoid the same tragedy of violence and warfare that has afflicted so many of their neighbors in southeast Europe," Powell said.
Times staff writer Esther Schrader in Washington contributed to this report.