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Macedonia truce deadline passes

Macedonian tank
The cease fire is due to begin at 2200 GMT on Thursday  


SKOPJE, Macedonia (CNN) -- A NATO-mediated cease-fire between the Macedonian government and ethnic Albanian rebels is now in effect.

The deadline passed at midnight local time on Thursday (2200 GMT) but it was preceded by fresh clashes and last-minute manoeuvring by both sides.

Fierce shelling was reported in and around the northwestern town of Tetovo in what could have been a last show of force by both sides before the cease-fire was scheduled to take hold.

It was reported that the rebels had set up a checkpoint close to one being manned by Macedonian police, near the stadium on the northwest side of the city.

The truce is the latest attempt to end four months of fighting. More than a dozen cease-fire agreements have come and gone in recent months with some lasting only a few hours.

Washington welcomed the planned cease-fire. "We believe it's a very important and necessary step toward resolving the crisis in Macedonia," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, the Associated Press reported.

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"We urge the parties to fully honour the agreements that they negotiated with NATO and the European Union."

Earlier the government in Skopje said in a statement: "We have reached an agreement for a cease-fire signed between the Macedonian government and NATO, as we know NATO signed a similar agreement with the NLA yesterday night.

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"The cease-fire will be in effect from today July 5, midnight."

But just before the midnight deadline, rebels shelled and shot at police positions in Tetovo, striking houses, AP reported.

Eleven civilians were injured, five seriously, with gunshot and shrapnel wounds, hospital director Raim Thaci told AP.

The government responded by using tanks, warplanes and helicopter gunships to target rebel checkpoints around the neighbouring villages of Poroj and Dzepciste, as well as suspected rebel positions in neighbouring hills.

Each side accused the other of using the last hours before the cease-fire to try to improve its positions. But Commander Sokoli, an insurgent spokesman, told AP from the rebel-held hills that he believed his soldiers would respect the midnight deadline.

Rebels had said they will not lay down their arms until their demands are met, including a full amnesty and inclusion in talks on revising the constitution. Neither condition has been met yet.

The latest agreement comes a day after the Macedonian government and Albanian politicians agreed to resume talks on revisions to the constitution designed to give Albanians increased rights and a constitutional guarantee of those rights.

A draft version of the revised constitution was presented on Wednesday by a French international law expert. It is expected that more revisions will be needed before the document would be accepted by both sides.

International pressure has been intense on the government and the rebels to find a resolution.

European Union peace envoy Francois Leotard and U.S. envoy James Pardew have held a flurry of meetings with leading politicians on all sides of the conflict, including President Boris Trajkovski and Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski.

Rebels said they have been speaking to "the Americans," but were not specific.

Last week, NATO formally approved plans to send a 3,000-strong force to Macedonia to help disarm ethnic Albanian rebels, but it was contingent on a lasting political agreement and a cease-fire taking hold in the country.

The truce comes at a time when Albanian rebels have gained control of a large portion of northern Macedonia. In recent days they have taken control of six villages near Tetovo.

CNN's Juliette Terzieff, reporting from the Macedonian capital, Skopje, said although there had been many cease-fires in the past, this latest announcement was significant, following a decision by politicians to restart talks.

"Rebel commanders are saying they are willing to hold the cease-fire as long as necessary on the condition that the politicians keep talking and that the Macedonian forces hold their fire," she said.

"The Macedonians are saying they have no intention of attacking the rebels as long as the rebels hold their position.

"So there is a bit of optimism and hope at this point that this cease-fire will hold out long enough for the politicians to try and make some agreement."






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