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Macedonia unity deal hits snag

SKOPJE, Macedonia -- An ethnic Albanian party has delayed the creation of a unity government in Macedonia, saying it needs more time to consider the plan.

An agreement was reached on Tuesday after marathon talks, supported by NATO secretary General George Robertson and European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, between the main ruling and opposition parties.

The coalition government would include the minority ethnic Albanians and is an attempt to diffuse tension in the country where government troops have been fighting ethnic Albanian rebels.

"A deal for a greater coalition has been made," government spokesman Antonio Milososki said.

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But the Party for Democratic Prosperity (PDP), the main ethnic Albanian opposition grouping, said later it needed more time.

"We have not taken a decision yet," Naser Ziberi, head of the PDP parliamentary group, told reporters after six hours of talks between party officials in the western city of Tetovo.

"The session will continue tomorrow morning because of additional consultations within the party and with the international community," he said. "The priority for us is how to stop the war."

The PDP wants a ceasefire before finalising the deal, Reuters news agency said.

One rebel commander, called Commander Sokoli, told Kosovalive news agency in Kosovo, that "any government formed ... without the participation of the NLA (National Liberation Army) will only let more blood get spilled."

The Macedonian government refuses to negotiate with the rebels, whom it considers to be terrorists.

The coalition announcement came as Macedonian tanks, helicopters and long-range artillery fired on ethnic Albanian rebels on Tuesday.

The village of Vakcince was bombarded, sending clouds of smoke into the air, and Slupcane, another suspected rebel stronghold, was shelled, Reuters said.

Army spokesman Blagoja Markovski said the rebels, whose numbers he estimated in the "hundreds" in Vakcince, fired back.

The coalition, including the two main Slav parties, the ruling VMRO-DPMNE and the opposition Socialists, would have a two-thirds majority in parliament, giving the coalition unchallenged power to enact laws and make constitutional changes.

International pressure had been applied to Macedonia's leaders not to destabilise the region by declaring a state of war.

Solana, returning to Brussels after talks in Skopje, said he was optimistic about the coalition.

"I think that to have now the possibility of a unity government in which the most important parties are engaged ... is very, very important and I hope that they will be able to move the process of internal dialogue with this structure in the government," he said.

Nearly 7,000 ethnic Albanians have gone to neighbouring Kosovo to escape the fighting, the UNHCR refugee agency said. In March, 10,000 fled to seek shelter.



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