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Macedonia talks raise peace hopes

Pardew, Robertson and Leotard
U.S. envoy James Pardew (right) and EU envoy Francois Leotard (left) talk with Robertson in Skopje  

SKOPJE, Macedonia (CNN) -- Macedonian government officials and representatives for ethnic Albanians are expected to meet at the weekend for a new round of peace negotiations.

United States envoy James Pardew and European Union negotiator Francois Leotard met separately with the two sides on Friday to try to push the former Yugoslav republic away from civil war.

On Saturday, Pardew and Leotard will bring together both sides for more peace talks at the presidential retreat at Lake Ohrid in the southern part of the country.

Ethnic Albanian rebels launched their insurgency in February, saying they were fighting for greater rights for ethnic Albanians, who make up almost a third of Macedonia's two million people.

CNN's Chris Burns reports on some Macedonians that have returned to homes they were forced out of (July 27)

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The rebels have pulled back to lines they held at the start of a cease-fire on July 5, but tensions remain high in and around Tetovo, a city of 60,000 where ethnic Albanians constitute a majority.

On Friday, a police post came under fire from ethnic Albanian insurgents in Jegunovce, 12 miles northeast of Tetovo, government officials told The Associated Press. No one was injured in the half-hour skirmish, authorities said.

Guerrillas also clashed with a patrol near the Albanian border, the private TV station SITEL said. The guerrillas were driven off, the report said. There was no word about casualties.

Pardew and Leotard presented a revised proposal to the ethnic Albanian leaders on one of their key demands -- that Albanian become Macedonia's second official language.

The provision specifically calls for Albanian to be recognised as an official language in communities where the local population is 20 percent Albanian or more.

A key sticking point has been how the language can be used both on local and national levels. Many Macedonians fear the second language could result in the country breaking apart.

One Western diplomat said the language proposal was "more precise (than previous proposals) on the circumstances in which the language can be used."

No agreement has been reached, but the Western diplomat said the ethnic Albanians are considering it and he hopes they will reach an agreement quickly.

Saturday's talks will include Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski as well as officials from the majority Slav and minority Albanian political parties. Meetings planned for Friday morning between the Slav and Albanian parties were called off because of security concerns.

Residents of Tetovo said on Friday they remained nervous, but one elderly resident told European Union monitors: "I had no hope before. At least I have some now."

In a joint Pardew-Leotard statement earlier on Friday, the two said meetings were continuing on the expert level in an attempt to resolve the sticking points on the language dispute and an Albanian demand that ethnic Albanian officers be added to local police forces.

EU envoy Javier Solana has said the two sides are not far apart. He predicted a peace agreement could be reached if Macedonia's political leaders have the will to push it through.

NATO and the European Union have been concerned that the fighting with rebels in the northern part of Macedonia could lead to a civil war if a peace deal is not reached.

There has been a suspicion in Macedonian government circles that the Western negotiators were biased towards the Albanian case.

Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski was very critical of NATO last week calling it "a friend of the enemy (rebels)," which in part set off rioting in Skopje earlier this week.

But Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski reiterated his support for NATO and the international negotiators on Thursday saying: "They are our friends."

• Macedonian government

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