Macedonian Fighting Mars Peace Hopes Ahead Of Pact Signing

By Beth Kampschror | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

Sarajevo ( - Macedonian politicians are expected to sign a peace agreement in Skopje Monday aimed at ending the six-month old ethnic Albanian uprising in the country, but one regional expert said that the fighting which is still dragging on must end before any such agreement will work out.

"A ceasefire needs to be in place and hold," said Harald Schenker of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) by telephone from Skopje Monday. "Then a parliamentary decision would be good, and then NATO could start deploying troops."

Schenker said Skopje was relatively calm today, but outside of the town, he could hear Sunday night's NATO-brokered ceasefire being violated.

"Over the last few days, and last night, for example, you could hear the detonations," he said. "You might imagine that the atmosphere in town is rather tense. The town is empty."

Macedonian forces apparently broke their unilateral cease-fire to continue pounding ethnic Albanian-held villages outside Skopje overnight. The state news agency reported Monday that the "terrorists" were attacking in the north and expelling Macedonians from their homes in the northwestern town of Tetovo.

Under Sunday's ceasefire agreement, the rebels are to withdraw to the positions they held under an earlier truce, which never held. But even if the fighting stops temporarily, the fresh agreement may not necessarily solve Macedonia's key problems.

Some lawmakers have said they will not even discuss the agreement, much less ratify it, as long as the self-styled National Liberation Army is still armed. For its part, the NLA says it will not disarm until they see promised political reforms demanded by ethnic Albanians in place.

NATO has pledged to send 3,500 troops to disarm the rebels once an agreement is reached, but only if three conditions are met - a signed peace deal, an agreement from the NLA to voluntarily hand over its weapons, and an open-ended ceasefire on the ground.

Before the ceasefire was called Sunday night, the situation in Macedonia looked as though it was sliding into all-out war. Macedonian forces dropped bombs on NLA strongholds Saturday and shelled a rebel-held village three miles from the capital.

Details of the agreement due to be signed today have not been released, though in past weeks there has been some consensus on key issues such as the semi-official use of the Albanian language and more ethnically-balanced police forces.

The past week of escalating violence has sparked fears that Monday's scheduled agreement will not hold. More than 30 people have been killed since last Tuesday, including eight soldiers on Friday when their vehicle ran over a landmine. That number constitutes around a third of the deaths since the fighting began in February.

Civil unrest erupted after 10 Macedonian soldiers were killed in a rebel ambush Tuesday. Civilians in the southern town that had been home to eight of the dead soldiers attacked a mosque and several Albanian-owned businesses there after the funerals.

The rebels began their insurgency in February, saying they were fighting for equal rights for the country's nearly one-third ethnic Albanian population.

The Macedonian government says the rebels are mostly imports from neighboring Kosovo and are fighting to carve an Albanian mini-state out of Macedonia.