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Leaders gather for Macedonia talks

Macedonian troops
There is growing international pressure for action to end the conflict  

SKOPJE, Macedonia -- High-level peace talks resume to try to find a political solution to the Macedonia conflict.

Thursday's meeting in Skopje comes the day after United States President George W. Bush was urged to back a greater NATO military role in the Balkan crisis or stand back and watch his European allies take the initiative.

Several European leaders, speaking at Bush's first, informal summit of the Atlantic alliance in Brussels, said bolder action was needed to halt a slide towards civil war in the former Yugoslav republic.

And some prominent U.S. figures urged military involvement led by the United States, implying it should not be undertaken by any European "coalition of the willing" ready to put troops on the ground to back Macedonia's limited security forces

In Brussels, French President Jacques Chirac said NATO must "rule out nothing" to stop the four months of fighting between Macedonian forces and ethnic Albanian rebels who are demanding greater rights. Britain's Tony Blair, who was one of the prime movers behind the alliance's 1999 campaign in Kosovo, told leaders it was "better to make preparations and to stabilise the situation rather than to wait and let the situation deteriorate." However, British sources denied afterwards that Blair was suggesting intervention.

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Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou told Greek radio an international peacekeeping force was needed, said Reuters.

"We have an immediate interest. There are many Greek companies that have invested substantial funds in this country," he told Flash radio. Bush said the NATO allies agree they "must face down extremists in Macedonia," but that did not include sending in troops.

"We agree we must face down extremists in Macedonia and elsewhere who seek to use violence to redraw borders or subvert the democratic process," Bush told reporters at NATO headquarters on Wednesday.

However, he said most nations still believe a political, not a military solution, can end the fighting there.

"Most people still believe that there is a political solution available before troops are committed," Bush said.

Members of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee and influential former U.S. officials also urged the Bush administration to consider military intervention to crack down on the ethnic Albanian extremists and prevent a full-blown war in Macedonia.

Senator Joe Biden, in his first hearing since serving as the committee's chairman, called on Secretary of State Colin Powell to appoint a special envoy for the region, insisting that only American leadership would remedy the escalating situation.

Senator Richard Lugar told Ambassador James Pardew, a senior State Department advisor on the Balkans, the United States must not sit idly by while ethnic extremists threaten to destabilise Macedonia and the region as a whole.

"This type of violence is destined to unravel a nation's state and is unacceptable," Lugar said. "We have the forces to stop it, we will stop it and the United States will take the leadership in doing that, even at the charge of being called unilateralists."

Biden agreed, and he would "bet" his seat in the Senate that European allies would send troops into Macedonia if the United States would lead the way.

"I can't think of a single incidence ... where anything has moved positively in the Balkans without a show of force and resolve," Biden said, adding that the United States should exercise the leadership which is lacking in its European allies.

Partial amnesty

Both sides declared cease-fires on Monday, and President Boris Trajkovski said he would consider upgrading the status of the ethnic Albanians, who account for nearly a third of Macedonia's two million people.

He has also offered a partial amnesty to rebels who lay down their weapons.

There have been several violations of the truce, though. Government tanks fired late Wednesday on rebel positions in Tetovo. The tank fire was said to be in response to machine gun fire from rebel outposts on the outskirts of the city.

Politicians representing both the Slavic majority and the ethnic Albanians will meet to discuss the plan -- which is backed by the U.S. and NATO -- at the Lake Ohrid resort.

Among those attending Thursday's talks in Skopje is NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson who won praise from an ethnic Albanian rebel leader.

Ali Ahmeti, political leader of the rebellion, said Robertson, who once slammed the rebels as a "bunch of murderous thugs," had made a major contribution to the peace process.

Praising efforts by both Robertson and European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana in an interview to be published on Thursday in the newspaper Fakti, Ahmeti said: "I would like to thank the Western diplomats, especially Mr Solana and Mr Robertson, because their contribution truly benefits humanity and us Albanians as well because we are part of the great European family."

Ahmeti said he wanted any long-term peace deal to be underwritten by guarantees from the United States, the EU and NATO.

"We do not see our future outside Europe and NATO integration and are convinced that together, by taking wise steps, we shall manage to solve the crisis."

Last month Robertson called the ethnic Albanian guerrillas "a bunch of murderous thugs whose objective is to destroy a democratic Macedonia" and turn it into "another Balkan bloodbath."

Ahmeti said Albanians, who make up about a third of Macedonia's population and say they are discriminated against by the majority Slavs in everything from jobs to education, should follow the lead of other democratic nations divided by language.

"The Macedonians should copy the example of Switzerland, Belgium and Canada," he said.

He added that representatives of his self-styled National Liberation Army (NLA) had sounded out diplomats in Western capitals to discuss possible disarmament of NLA fighters and reintegration into civilian life.

Speaking on Wednesday, Robertson told CNN's Insight programme: "(NATO) has no mandate to operate inside Macedonia as it stands at the present moment, but if there is a ceasefire and there is disarmament and decommissioning then NATO will be able to do what it did in Kosovo on the border with southern Serbia only a few weeks ago.

"That is, to supervise the disarmament process, which I hope is going to take place in Macedonia.

"The key thing just now is that the situation is grave but there are still promising signs."

Earlier, he said ethnic Albanian rebels must be convinced that the reform process they say they want can be achieved by democratic means."

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