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Macedonian Government, Ethnic Albanians Sign Peace Agreement

Warring sides in Macedonia signed a peace accord Monday that clears the way for NATO soldiers to disarm ethnic Albanian rebels.

The landmark agreement was formally endorsed by political leaders representing the Balkan country's Macedonian majority and its minority ethnic Albanian population. The deal gives ethnic Albanians a larger share of power in the police ranks, parliament and education.

It also paves the way for NATO to send in 3,500 troops, including Americans, to disarm the rebels — a potentially risky mission that the alliance insists it will only launch if a cease-fire is sustained.

NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson, who attended the signing, said he would convene a session of NATO's ruling body Monday night in Brussels. He said he hoped the alliance could move "very swiftly indeed" on launching the mission.

The rebels, who launched their insurgency in February, were not involved in the negotiations that led to the peace deal. Their political leader, Ali Ahmeti, has said the insurgents would abide by the accord, although some commanders have expressed pessimism over it.

The militants say they are seeking more rights for ethnic Albanians, who account for about a third of Macedonia's population of 2 million. The Macedonian government contends the rebels simply want to seize territory.

Robertson and European Union envoy Javier Solana watched as President Boris Trajkovski and the leaders of the four largest parties, two ethnic Albanian and two Macedonian, signed the accord. The two mediators — Francois Leotard of France and James Pardew of the United States — also signed the 15-page document at Trajkovski's residence.

In New York, the U.N. Security Council called a meeting Monday to endorse the peace deal and ask all parties to abide by it.

"It's a good sign," President Bush said of the signing, speaking to reporters at his ranch in Texas. "But now they need to lay down their arms so we can implement" the deal.

Robertson called the deal "a remarkable moment for the history of Macedonia. This day marks the entry of Macedonia into modern, mainstream Europe."

"After this day, there should be no reason for fighting," said Pardew.

However, Robertson said there must be a "durable cease-fire" and a clear commitment from the rebels to disarm before NATO troops can be deployed. He gave no timetable for deployment.

The British-led mission, dubbed Operation Essential Harvest, would last 30 days and would include troops from the United States, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Greece, the Netherlands, Norway, Turkey, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

Robertson was to brief the North Atlantic Council, which must approve the mission. The council was not expected to decide during the Monday night session. Military advisers were to arrive in Skopje on Tuesday to review logistics, he said.

Sources close to the talks said the signing ceremony was postponed for over an hour because of last-minute bickering over an ethnic Albanian demand that the accord spell out amnesty for all rebels who did not commit war crimes during the fighting. The demand was accepted.

After a weekend of heavy fighting, Macedonia's government reinstated a cease-fire that had gone ignored over the past two weeks. Trajkovski ordered government forces to stop shooting Sunday "to show goodwill and give a chance" to the peace deal, state television reported.

Still, fighting continued overnight in the north. Heavy detonations could be heard until 3 a.m. throughout Skopje.

The army accused the insurgents on Monday of firing mortars and machine guns at police positions near the rebel strongholds of Slupcane and Orizare.

On Sunday, troops backed by tanks and warplanes fought the rebels on the outskirts the capital and several other fronts.

Government troops Sunday pounded the ethnic Albanian village of Ljuboten, just three miles north of Skopje, with mortars and tank fire.

A rebel spokesman who goes by the name of Besniku, or Faith, said about 50 ethnic Albanian civilians had been killed over the last three days alone, but could not estimate rebel casualties.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.