Rebels, Military Clash in Macedonia at Start of Cease-Fire

Ethnic Albanian rebels and government forces clashed briefly Friday after the start of a NATO-brokered cease-fire -- but appeared to respect a deal aimed at ending a 4-month-old Albanian insurgency that threatens to engulf this Balkan country in civil war.

Fighting around Tetovo, a mostly Albanian city 20 miles west of the capital, quieted about two hours after the midnight deadline, both the Macedonian Army and NATO reported.

"The cease-fire is holding. That is indeed a fact now," NATO spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Altmannsperger said. "We are happy, of course."

The cease-fire deal reached Thursday was meant to clear the way for the disarming of the rebels and was expected to ease tensions that have hampered an agreement on ethnic Albanian demands for better protection of their rights.

"It is a major step forward," said Nikola Dimitrov, national security adviser to President Boris Trajkovski.

Hopes for a further breakthrough came amid intensified diplomacy by EU envoy Francois Leotard and his U.S. counterpart, James Pardew, and just a day after Trajkovski announced progress in political dialogue among the major Macedonian Slav and ethnic Albanian political parties.

Envoys were holding talks with other ethnic minorities Friday, according to a Macedonian Cabinet source, as experts continued to work on constitutional changes and confidence-building measures to address Albanian demands.

Washington welcomed the cease-fire.

"We believe it's a very important and necessary step toward resolving the crisis in Macedonia. We urge the parties to fully honor the agreements that they negotiated with NATO and the European Union," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

Javier Solana, the EU's security and foreign policy chief, said he was hopeful for a resolution, and urged the government and ethnic Albanian politicians to move "at the speed of sound."

"I'm more optimistic now of how things are going," he told reporters Friday. "I think we're moving, we're moving at a fast rhythm."

The midnight cease-fire deadline approached amid heavy fighting around Tetovo. Just hours after the deal was announced, the rebels rained shells on police positions near the sports stadium in the city, striking houses, buildings and cars. Eleven civilians were injured, five seriously, hospital director Raim Thaci said.

The government responded with maximum force, using tanks, warplanes and helicopter gunships to target rebel checkpoints around the neighboring villages Poroj and Dzepciste, as well as in neighboring hills.

The fighting continued for several hours after midnight, according to state television, which also reported clashes at Radusa, 9 miles west of Skopje. It also said the rebels attacked police stations at Terce village, near the Kosovo border and Lesok, northwest of Tetovo, after midnight.

Further clashes Friday could delay start of a direct NATO role in helping bring peace to the country -- the alliance wants to ensure the cease-fire is holding before sending troops.

NATO's role "has to be in what we call a benign and consensual environment," said NATO spokesman Paul Barnard in Skopje on Thursday. "We are not here to enforce the disarmament."

Rear Adm. Craig Quigley said NATO has not yet decided the time is right to begin the disarming effort, nor has the alliance assembled a force for that mission.

The final composition of the new NATO force has not been determined, but Barnard said British troops would lead any operation, working with Greek, Italian and French forces to collect the weapons. U.S. troops will be handling logistics, he said.

Macedonian Defense Minister Vlado Buckovski said some 3,000 NATO troops from 15 nations would be deployed by mid-month and the actual disarmament would begin two weeks later. The operation is expected to be completed in four to six weeks if both sides respect the cease-fire.

Macedonia's chief of general staff, Pande Petrevski, signed a cease-fire document with NATO on Thursday in Skopje, and Ali Ahmeti, the rebel NLA's political leader, signed a separate deal with NATO Wednesday in the southern Kosovo city of Prizren.

The rebels indicated, however, they would not disarm until a political agreement providing equality for Macedonia's ethnic Albanian minority is reached.

The cease-fire could create conditions allowing for parliamentary elections in November and amnesty for rebels who have not committed war crimes and have disarmed, Buckovski said.

The elections seek to provide better representation for Albanians, who make up a third of the country's 2 million people but control only 25 seats in the 120-member legislature.