No breakthrough in Macedonia talks, but `positive' movement

 

Crucial peace talks underway in Macedonia yielded no breakthrough yesterday. However, sources said "positive" movement had been made towards an agreement that would end the ethnic Albanian rebellion in the country.

The discussions, being hosted by President Boris Trajkovski in his summer residence, are to continue today. A settlement is seen as necessary to avert a civil war in the Balkans republic, where the rebels have been fighting for five months for what they say are greater rights in areas with significant ethnic Albanian populations.

The EU and US envoys acting as mediators in the discussions involving Mr Trajkovski and the leaders of the four Macedonian and ethnic Albanian parties gave no comment to journalists as they arrived back at their hotel. But a Western diplomat said "there was some positive movement on lang uage".

That was in reference to the main issue which has bogged down the talks since they started on Saturday: that of making Albanian an official language alongside Macedonian, at least in some areas of the republic. Macedonian sources confirmed the advance, also describing the result of yesterday's discussions as "positive".

They said the gap had narrowed on the language issue, with both sides accepting the use of Albanian in areas with ethnic Albanian populations of at least 20 percent.

Differences remained, however, on whether Albanian should be used in parliament.

That would leave only one other outstanding issue: a demand that an ethnic Albanian police force be set up for certain areas. The participants are aiming to have a full agreement ready for signature on Thursday - Macedonia's National Day.

As the talks were going on, a NATO-brokered ceasefire held in the conflict zone in the north, despite several violations that occurred on Sunday.

Macedonian Interior Minister Mr Ljube Boskovski told state television that the situation was "relatively stable".

EU envoy Francois Leotard said before yesterday's session began that while "nobody is certain of success," he saw an agreement closer now than ever before.

But, he added, "it's really progress millimetre by millimetre."