U.S. Envoy Calls for Peace Efforts in Macedonia, Amid Reports of Insurgents Taking Over Villages

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An American diplomat landed in Macedonia on Sunday and called on political leaders to work harder to end a conflict with ethnic Albanian rebels who have reportedly seized new villages and forced Slav civilians out.

"It is important to recognize that finding a solution here is really the responsibility of the leaders of Macedonia," special envoy James Pardew told reporters after his arrival, which raised the Bush administration's stake in the troubled Balkan country.

"Those who favor use of force here are undermining the peace process," he said.

Pardew, the State Department's European Bureau special adviser, will be working with a European Union envoy to jump-start peace negotiations between the rebels and the Slav-dominated government. Persistent skirmishes and reports of rebels driving civilians from villages suggest their mission will be difficult.

A state radio report said the rebels took control of four villages near tiny Macedonia's second largest city, Tetovo, and ordered Macedonian Slavs to leave.

Vase Zakovski, a resident of one of the villages, Setole, told an Associated Press reporter in Skopje that he left after "three armed and masked people ... told me to get out of the village."

A Human Rights Watch team met a convoy of about 50 villagers who said armed rebels forced them out of Setole and another village, Otunje, said Peter Bouckaert, an official with the rights organization. They said a larger group had left a day earlier.

"Certainly we are concerned that Macedonian civilians in this area where physically threatened," Bouckaert said. "One of the Macedonians told me he had had a gun pointed at him and was told to leave the village yesterday."

Deputy Interior Minister Refat Elmazi, an ethnic Albanian, told The Associated Press he had heard reports that rebels were in the communities in recent days but had not heard of threats to civilians. Monitors with the Organization for Security and Cooperation were trying to get to the area to check the reports.

Police officials said a 58-year-old civilian male was shot to death recently in one of the villages, Brezno. About a dozen civilians have been killed in Macedonia's conflict since the ethnic Albanian rebels took up arms in February.

The government also reported a soldier killed and another wounded, both by rebel mortar fire in separate attacks in the north of the country. The government also said its troops had come under fire in the village of Tanusevci from the Kosovo side of the border.

Army spokesman Col. Blagoja Markovski said the region near Tetovo, about 25 miles west of Skopje, was "relatively calm" overnight, but that there was occasional sniper fire from outlying villages.

Markovski also said there were sporadic exchanges of small arms fire that lasted into early Sunday near Kumanovo, about 20 miles northeast of Skopje. He said the fighting began when rebels opened fire from several cars.

The second day of low-level fighting came after a lull that lasted several days. Clashes were reported Saturday near the Kosovo border in the north. Most of the fighting has taken place in the northwestern portion of the Vermont-sized nation.

Pardew did not single out specific leaders when he condemned hard-liners. The EU has warned Macedonia that further aid could be suspended if its Slavs and ethnic Albanians fail to bridge their differences.

The rebels have demanded constitutional changes to guarantee ethnic Albanians, who make up for about a third of the population of 2 million, equal status with the Slav majority.

The government says it fears that would eventually lead to the division of the country along ethnic lines, and claims the rebels intend to carve off parts Macedonia and ultimately create a new nation linking ethnic Albanians in Macedonia, Albania and Kosovo.