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Envoy joins Macedonia peace talks

Leotard, left, has been working hard with his joint envoy Pardew, to secure a settlement
Leotard, left, has been working hard with his joint envoy Pardew, to secure a settlement  

SKOPJE, Macedonia -- Talks have resumed in Macedonia in an attempt to halt four months of fighting between government troops and ethnic Albanian rebels.

It is hoped the negotiations will build on the cease-fire announced last week, which seems to be holding despite skirmishes around Macedonia's second-largest city, Tetovo.

Two Macedonian army reservists were abducted, military sources told The Associated Press on Monday.

The talks, brokered by the West, are to be boosted by the arrival in the former Yugoslav republic of Max van der Stoel of the Netherlands representing the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Macedonian officials on Tuesday said that -- contrary to earlier reports -- French constitutional expert Robert Badinter was not planning to join the talks in the next few days.

Badinter had played a key role in drafting parts of a proposed peace plan for the area, particularly sections aimed at addressing ethnic Albanian unrest.

The relative lull in the fighting has encouraged some ethnic Albanians to return to their homes near the Kosovo border after fleeing during the troubles.

More than 8,000 have made the journey across the border, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said, leaving 60,000 still in Kosovo.

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Francois Leotard  

U.S. envoy James Pardew and his European colleague, Francois Leotard, praised the atmosphere after talks on Monday and expressed optimism.

But the sides were reported to be far apart on negotiations aimed at translating the fragile cease-fire into a permanent peace and avoiding the risk of civil war.

The ethnic Albanians -- who make up more than one-quarter of Macedonia's two million people -- want equal status with the majority Macedonians guaranteed in a rewritten constitution. The government rejects this, arguing it would lead to a breakup of the country.

Ethnic Albanian rebels who have been battling government troops for months are not involved in the talks. But if their political leaders back a deal, it could lead to the next critical step, rebels agreeing to disarm under supervision of NATO peacekeepers.

Three rebel commanders were reported as saying on Monday they would end their armed rebellion in Macedonia only if the state granted ethnic Albanians equal rights.

One front-line officer from the Albanian rebel National Liberation Army (NLA), a commandant Clirime, told Reuters the NLA took up arms because Albanians tired of pleading for concessions.

"We are not asking anybody for anything because what we have wanted for 100 years is within our grasp and we are not going to let it go."

The commandants all said Macedonia's ethnic Albanians suffered from systematic discrimination that denied them work and a recognised university education in their mother tongue.

"Albanians are discriminated against in every field," a Commandant Leka told Reuters. "For example 90 percent of (the main ethnic Albanian city) Tetovo's population is Albanian, but they have just two percent of the jobs and in some fields even less."

In a joint statement, Pardew and Leotard said the negotiations were "conducted in a constructive manner" with the parties expressing commitment "to this process."

However, Macedonian and ethnic Albanian politicians insisted little headway had been made.

"There has been very little progress," an ethnic Albanian politician, Abdylhadi Veiseli, told AP. "We insist on our demands; it will be difficult to finish the negotiations."

• Macedonian government
• European Union

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