SKOPJE, Macedonia – Asserting that former ethnic Albanian rebel strongholds still pose a threat of violence, Macedonian officials sought NATO and European Union permission Saturday to give more fire power and backup to ethnically mixed police patrols they plan to move into tense areas.
"We are involved in negotiations," said Ilija Filipovski, head of a government team that meets with NATO and EU monitors. "There are talks scheduled, to see if we can obtain more armament and equipment for the troops."
A phased deployment of small, ethnically mixed police patrols in tense villages in the northwestern Macedonian was part of the peace accord engineered by the EU and NATO and signed by Macedonian and ethnic Albanian leaders in August.
The deal halted six months of bitter clashes between government troops and rebels demanding more rights for ethnic Albanians, who make up about a third of Macedonia's population of 2 million. Dozens were killed and thousands displaced in the conflict.
Under the accord, the rebels agreed to stop fighting and handed in more than 4,000 weapons to NATO troops in exchange for promises that the Macedonian-dominated parliament would pass reforms improving the status of ethnic Albanians.
Details for the deployment of police in the former rebels strongholds were worked out last week between NATO and EU monitors and the government.
They call for three Macedonian and three ethnic Albanian policemen in two police cars, with sidearms only, to begin patrolling five villages for several daylight hours Monday. The hours were to increase over the next month.
The patrols are to be monitored by EU observers, with NATO soldiers close by in case the observers are threatened.
But in a move that could further stall the peace process, which has already suffered setbacks in the parliament, Macedonian authorities on Friday rejected plans for the phased deployment.
Government spokesman Gjorgji Trendafilov said that such patrols would be in danger because of what he claimed were new incursions by armed insurgents in the critical areas.
Authorities reported sporadic automatic fire overnight in areas of rebel concentration, with one explosion resounding above the predominantly ethnic Albanian city of Tetovo shortly before dawn.
Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski urged a revision of the police deployment plan. He said the existing plan was "insulting" because the police would only "symbolically patrol, with no real authority."
Filipovski indicated the Macedonians wanted permission for more arms for the patrols, as well as bulletproof vests and backup.
NATO spokesman Craig Ratcliff said the alliance was engaged in talks on the patrols with the Macedonians.
Macedonia's peace process had appeared back on track after NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson and Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, negotiated a formula Thursday to bring Macedonian and ethnic Albanian lawmakers back to parliament this week to discuss constitutional amendments meant to improve minority rights.
After Robertson's intervention, ethnic Albanian deputies agreed to stop their boycott of the assembly, and President Boris Trajkovski pledged to deliver drafts for all 15 constitution amendments to parliament by end of the week. The amendments would put the two ethnic communities on equal footing under the law.