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New crisis hits Macedonia's peace

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A protester holds a Macedonian flag outside the Macedonian parliament building on Friday  


SKOPJE, Macedonia -- NATO has warned Macedonian politicians that its role in the peace accord could be threatened by the suspension of the country's parliament.

Macedonian politicians brought a halt to talks on the peace agreement on Saturday after complaints that ethnic Albanian rebels were blocking the repatriation of Slav refugees.

The parliamentary speaker Stojan Andov said. "We cannot continue while terrorists continue to harass and block (Macedonian) refugees trying to return to their homes."

About 350 Macedonians who were trying to revisit homes behind rebel lines were marooned overnight on the wrong side of barricades, before being let through.

Andov refused to endorse the restart of the parliamentary session until the demand for more of the thousands of refugees still stranded in Kosovo be allowed home was met.

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The Macedonian cabinet convened to see how to resolve the crisis and NATO, U.S. and European Union envoys who mediated the August 13 peace accord attended the meeting.

Absent from the meeting were nationalist politicians including the prime minister, interior minister and parliament speaker.

The parliamentary debate centres on whether to consider constitutional reforms granting new rights to Macedonia's ethnic Albanians in exchange for the surrender of weapons to NATO by rebel fighters.

The changes would include making Albanian an official language in areas where ethnic Albanians comprise more than 20 percent of the population and award a degree of self-rule to predominantly ethnic Albanian areas.

The peace accord also envisages proportional representation of minorities in the government and police forces, as well as in the Constitutional Court, which has the final say in legislative matters.

NATO's ambassador to Macedonia, Hansjorg Eiff, warned Macedonian officials that parliament could not put up new conditions.

"The conditioning of this process would certainly be risky," he was quoted by The Associated Press as saying following talks with Macedonia's president and other leaders.

"We are concerned about the continuation of our action."

It is not clear when parliament will resume.

Before NATO can begin the second phase of weapons collection next week, 80 deputies in the 120-seat assembly must vote in favour of amending the constitution.

President Boris Trajkovski said the Western-brokered peace deal was hugely important, adding that the alternative is "division and...mass ethnic and civil war."

Defence minister Vlado Buckovski, a moderate, also criticised the parliament's suspension as "obstructive."

The stand-off followed a six-hour hold-up of the debate on Friday when demonstrations took place outside the parliamentary building.

At the end of the debate several radical deputies from VMRO, the top Macedonian government party, rejected the constitutional changes.

Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski, a senior VMRO member, called for a nationwide referendum on the reforms, AP said.

Macedonia's leading ethnic Albanian leader Arben Xhaferi told AP he would not support a referendum.

"The Macedonians are now playing a game of always blaming others for their responsibilities so they will always appear as victims."

About a third of the 3,300 weapons have been handed in. NATO released figures on Saturday of the breakdown. They include 1,210 arms, including 69 anti-tank pieces, three surface-to-air missiles, 194 machine guns and 944 assault rifles.

Parliament is due to hold sessions each time a third of the weapons are given up, with a vote coming at the end of NATO's operation on September 26.

The Macedonians believe the rebels have thousands more weapons which they have not declared to NATO.

Barricades were constructed by both Slavs and ethnic Albanians in different parts of the country. Slavs at border crossings with Kosovo were protesting at the arrival of NATO troops.

While Albanians in Poroj, complaining at the detention of a local man by police, prevented Macedonian villagers from Bratnice returning to the capital Skopje.






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