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NATO presses for Macedonia peace

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Macedonian soldiers on the road before the cease-fire.  

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- NATO says its planned force to oversee the disarming of ethnic Albanian rebels in Macedonia could move in swiftly once the alliance is satisfied a three-pronged peace plan is working.

A fragile cease-fire -- one of the two conditions NATO has laid down -- remained in place on Friday evening despite minor skirmishes, while talks opened between the government and ethnic Albanian groups.

NATO is demanding that the cease-fire remains in place along with a commitment from the rebels to hand over weapons and progress in talks aimed at resolving political differences before it will send the 3,000-strong force to the area.

NATO Secretary-general Lord Robertson said the force could go in quickly, but he added that less than a day into the latest cease-fire NATO criteria for deployment were not yet satisfied.

Juliette Terzieff on cracks in Macedonia's fragile truce
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soldier Macedonia: Hurdles to peace

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Francois Leotard  

A round of talks at all levels began on Friday after the cease-fire in Macedonia came into force at midnight on Thursday local time (2200 GMT).

Robertson met Macedonian Foreign Minister Ilinka Mitreva at NATO headquarters in Brussels for a progress report on the cease-fire who was briefing western officials on recent developments in the Balkan nation where a cease-fire came into force at midnight on Thursday.

Talks also began between the Macedonian government and ethnic minority groups over possible constitutional changes and confidence-building measures being considered by the government in an attempt to halt 20-weeks of fighting between security forces and the ethnic Albanian rebels.

There were signs of discontent over the cease-fire, with unidentified gunmen firing at a convoy of German NATO troops hours before the truce took hold, causing only minor damage to their vehicle and no injuries.

Meanwhile, a small crowd angry over the West's intervention in persuading the Macedonian government to end its attacks on rebels, kicked and spat at the U.S. ambassador's car as he visited Tetovo, a predominantly Albanian town.

Reuters also reported that a statement was faxed to local media by a group called Macedonia Paramilitary 2000 urging Macedonian leaders not to rewrite the country's constitution to raise the status of minority Albanians.

But there was optimism among Western leaders that the latest cease-fire could work.

"Macedonia is not completely through it, but there is more light at the tunnel," Robertson said, according to the Associated Press.

Javier Solana, the European Union's security and foreign policy chief, said he was "more optimistic now" that the crisis can be resolved, the agency said.

The NATO force to supervise the disarmament is expected to be spearheaded by British troops who will make up about one-third of the 3,000 total, said AP.

Italy, Germany and Greece are each likely to send 300 soldiers, and the United States, France, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Turkey have also offered troops.

NATO already has around 4,000 troops stationed in Macedonia as back up to the peacekeeping operation in neighbouring Kosovo.

Solana said a plan to form the basis of talks between Slav politicians and the ethnic Albanian minority would be issued.

He added, following talks with Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski: "I am a cautious optimist and always have been. I would like to underline those two words today, optimism and caution."

A team of experts are also involved in technical talks with both sides to find solutions to politically sensitive issues such as constitutional changes, language and administrative laws.

They are also designed to pave the way for early parliamentary elections in November and amnesty for rebels who have not committed war crimes, once they have disarmed.

The elections would seek to provide better proportional representation for the Albanian minority, which controls only 25 seats in the 120-member national legislature.

The rebels have been fighting for more civil rights for the ethnic Albanians who make up about a third of the population.

Meanwhile, five high-ranking members of the Kosovo Protection Corps were suspended on Friday for alleged involvement in the Macedonian insurgency.

The suspensions came a week after President Bush issued an executive order restricting entry to the United States of the five men.

"After having consulted with the United States and other nations, an investigation against these persons has been initiated," the U.N. mission and the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo said in a joint statement.

The Kosovo Protection Corps is a group created to deal with civilian emergencies after the war ended two years ago in Kosovo.

It comprises former members of the now-disbanded Kosovo Liberation Army, the rebel force that fought for independence for the Yugoslav province.

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