U.S. Promises Support To Macedonia After Recent Surge Of Ethnic Conflict

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

Sarajevo (CNSNews.com) - The United States will continue to support Macedonia's efforts to stem a simmering ethnic Albanian uprising, Secretary of State Colin Powell assured Macedonian officials during his first visit to the Balkans.

"You can be sure of the American support of your efforts, political support, economic support and military support," Powell said in Skopje after meeting President Boris Trajkovski Friday.

The U.S. Embassy in Skopje announced shortly before Powell's visit that the U.S. would give $3.5 million in military aid to the country, in line with an agreement signed Wednesday.

The aid is said to include communications equipment for the Macedonian army, which only a month ago was fighting an ethnic Albanian insurgency about 20 miles from the capital.

Powell also welcomed the beginning of political dialogue between parties of the majority ethnic Slavs and those representing ethnic Albanians, who make up about one-quarter of the country's population. A new round of talks began Tuesday.

"You are facing a great challenge, to show to the region and the world that people with different ethnic origins may agree on peace through a political dialogue," Powell said.

Trajkovski said his government would continue the talks process.

"[It is] my intention to include ... the entire society in the political dialogue," he said. "We want to build a society based on individual rights and responsibilities."

Albanians want more rights under Macedonia's constitution, and their complaints of discrimination exploded last month when armed rebels attacked government forces around the northwestern town of Tetovo. The leader of Macedonia's main Albanian party told Powell that renewed conflict would depend on what comes out of the talks.

"The reactivation of terrorists will not depend on the efforts of the Albanian parties, but on [Macedonian political leaders]," Democratic Party of Albanians president Arben Xhaferi told reporters in Skopje.

Xhaferi urged the U.S. to assume a larger role in preventing war in Macedonia.

Powell's visit came a day after he assured the five other nations in the Balkans Contact Group that the U.S. would not pull out of the region.

The group, also comprising Britain, France, Italy, Germany and Russia, was formed in the early 1990s to address the wars in the former Yugoslavia. The countries agreed that they would not support changes to the borders in the region, despite calls for independence by Serbia's last remaining partner in the Yugoslav federation, Montenegro.

The U.S. currently has about 10,000 troops serving in Bosnia and Kosovo. Powell visits Bosnia Friday, where fragile U.S.-brokered peace agreements are threatened by violence and breakaway attempts by secessionist Croats.

He has also planned to visit Kosovo, but the trip was canceled due to poor weather. A Russian soldier with NATO's forces in the province was killed Wednesday, allegedly by ethnic Albanian insurgents there.