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Macedonia skirmishes continue

Macedonian police
Macedonian forces back in control of Aracinovo. The U.S. flag was left by ethnic Albanian rebels.  


SKOPJE, Macedonia -- Clashes have continued between Macedonian troops and ethnic Albanian rebels as Europe's new Balkans peace envoy takes up his post.

Macedonian army spokesman Blagoja Markovski told Reuters news agency that rebels had targeted troops outside two villages in northeastern Kumanovo overnight.

Ethnic Albanian rebels have been fighting since February for greater rights in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia despite efforts by the international community to secure a peace deal.

A commander with the rebel National Liberation Army called Hoxha said he was unconcerned about the clashes, but he warned government troops not to attempt a ground assault, Reuters reported.

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"If they attack, we will do the same," he said, repeating his earlier claim that the NLA had "two battalions in Skopje which we can activate when necessary."

European Union envoy Francois Leotard, a former French defence minister, faces the difficult task of encouraging stalled peace talks.

Shortly before his arrival in Macedonia on Thursday, Leotard had to clarify his statement that the government should talk to the rebels.

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He said the EU position of negotiating with ethnic Albanian political leaders but not with rebels remained unchanged.

The latest talks were disrupted on Monday when armed nationalists stormed into parliament and participants in the talks were evacuated through a back door.

The Albanians are demanding more formalised international participation, something the Macedonian side has so far resisted, fearing it will play into their opponents' hands, but which diplomats say is crucial to get negotiations moving.

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A previous envoy who had tried to bring the rebels into the peace process, U.S. diplomat Robert Frowick from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, left Macedonia last month without finding a breakthrough.

Since then NATO has had what it calls "technical" contacts with the rebels, brokering a deal this week to end an army onslaught in a strategic village from which the rebels had threatened to attack Skopje and its nearby airport.

U.S., French and Italian troops helped evacuate the rebels, with their arms, in return for a cease-fire from the military, whose three-day-long onslaught had shown little sign of success.





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