SKOPJE, Macedonia – Hundreds of angry Macedonians marched through the capital Monday to protest expected concessions to minority ethnic Albanians in peace talks aimed at ending a rebel insurgency and averting civil war.
Chanting, "This is Macedonia," and other slogans, demonstrators walked past the local offices of NATO, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the European Union, which is helping mediate negotiations for a political solution to the crisis.
The talks continued Monday for an eighth straight day between the feuding parties representing majority Macedonians and ethnic Albanians who are pressing for broader rights and more political influence in the former Yugoslav republic.
Protest organizer Tomislav Stojanovski told The Associated Press that the demonstrators were demanding meetings with U.S. envoy James Pardew and his EU counterpart, Francois Leotard, who helped draft the peace plan.
"We want to tell the people who dictate terms of peace that we need protection from those who started the war," Stojanovski said.
Macedonia's crisis began in February, when militants from the ethnic Albanian community took up arms and clashed with government forces, prompting the international community to intervene diplomatically in hopes of heading off the threat of a new war in southeastern Europe.
Earlier this month, NATO and the EU mediated a cease-fire, and Pardew and Leotard arrived to try to broker an agreement. Key provisions would introduce Albanian as the second official language, change the country's constitution to upgrade the status of the minority and guarantee better representation of ethnic Albanians in the government, police, army and education.
Ethnic Albanians account for nearly a third of Macedonia's 2 million people, and they have bitterly complained of treatment as second-class citizens. Many Macedonians see their demands as a strategy to divide the country and ultimately carve out an ethnic Albanian mini-state.
Monday's protesters mostly came from the northwestern city of Tetovo, where ethnic Albanians form a local majority and support the rebels who still control a string of villages near Macedonia's second-largest city.
Hundreds of Macedonians — the majority ethnic group of Slavic origin — have been forced out of their homes in the area. Many participated in the protest, chanting, "Macedonia for Macedonians," "No changes to our constitution" and "We want our homes back."
The OSCE mission chief in Skopje, Carlo Ungaro, appeared in front of his office near the protest crowd and spoke briefly to reporters, calling the Macedonian demands to return to their homes "a very legitimate request."
He said the OSCE was "very much concerned for places in which Macedonian people are in the minority ... one of our aims is to protect minorities."
Tens of thousands of people on both sides have been displaced by the fighting. Many ethnic Albanians have fled over the border into Kosovo, a predominantly ethnic Albanian province of neighboring Serbia.
If the rival sides agree on a peace plan, some 3,000 NATO troops would deploy to oversee the disarmament of the rebels, who number between 4,000 and 6,000 according to Macedonian government estimates.