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Talks fail to heal Macedonian rift

Matejce
A villager watches on the outskirts of Matejce as military vehicles enter  


SKOPJE, Macedonia -- European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana has left Macedonia having failed to close a rift in the country's unity government.

Solana held several hours of talks with top-level figures on Monday, including president Boris Trajkovski, prime minister Ljubco Georgievski and other party leaders, in an attempt to keep the ethnic Albanian and Slavic parties together.

The two sides had fallen out over a secret deal the ethnic Albanian political parties had signed with rebels fighting in the north of the country.

Slavs are unhappy because the deal reportedly said that the rebels would agree to stop fighting in exchange for amnesty guarantees and the power to veto political decisions on ethnic Albanian rights, the Associated Press news agency said.

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The national unity coalition was formed just two weeks ago under heavy pressure from Solana and other top international figures.

The EU chief said after the talks: "I found goodwill in everybody -- and understanding -- but also some differences remain," Reuters reported. "I will keep in touch with all leaders."

CNN's Chris Burns said Solana had failed to get the dialogue started between the two parties.

But Solana repeated his belief that the government of unity remained the "best instrument to face the political challenge."

He will now fly to Budapest, where NATO foreign ministers are holding a conference, to brief them on the outcome of his talks.

NATO Secretary-General George Robertson said he hoped the national unity government will deal with the present situation with "firmness but also with flexibility."

Macedonian security forces continued to use military force while the talks took place, bombarding three villages in the north of the country with helicopter gunship fire and heavy artillery. The army took control of the village of Matejce.

Local television pictures showed government forces inside the village with buildings bearing the scars of the recent battle.

The minaret of the local mosque lay on its side and windows were broken in other buildings No civilians could be seem.

Tanks and long-range artillery also sustained their weekend attack on the villages of Orizare and Slupcane, a few kilometres east of Matejce.

An area close to a supply base used by NATO-led peacekeepers in the town of Kumanovo came under attack from mortar rounds, defence ministry officials said.

Police spokesman Dragi Nestorovski said it was not known who fired the shells but they were being investigated. The base is used to offer logistics for KFOR peacekeepers across the border in Kosovo.

No immediate reports of injuries were recorded.

Food running out

Concern is growing at the welfare of the thousands of civilians thought to be trapped in villages.

Macedonian troops
Macedonian troops enter Matejce  

The Macedonian defence ministry said talks were continuing on how to evacuate the villagers from the conflict zone.

Reuters said most of the civilians are believed to be in the village of Lipkovo.

It quoted the town's mayor, Reshat Ferati, as saying: "There are about 10,000 in Lipkovo and most of them stay in cellars or houses without roofs."

Lipkovo's mayor Hysamedin Halili had told him on Sunday that their food reserves were running out and that they were now eating maize -- which they normally fed to the animals.

It was not immediately clear how many people are still trapped in the rebel-held villages.

Up to 3,000 have crossed into Serbia, Yugoslavia's larger republic in the past weeks, while an army spokesman said that more then 1,300 left the area during the weekend.

Thousands more have crossed into Kosovo since the crisis began earlier this month.

The rebels say they are fighting for greater rights for Macedonia's minority ethnic Albanians.

The government contends they are intent on seizing territory and carving out an ethnic Albanian state.







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