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Monday, 13 August, 2001, 13:56 GMT 14:56 UK
Macedonia fighting mars peace hopes
People leaving Ljuboten
Fighting has driven villagers out of Ljuboten
Fresh exchanges of fire in Macedonia have cast new doubt on the chances of success of a peace deal, just hours before it is due to be signed.

The agreement is scheduled to be formally adopted in the capital, Skopje, on Monday afternoon by the country's four main political parties, in the presence of senior international figures.

We'll get signatures on a piece of paper... but we're still talking to the rebels, and we don't know what they'll do

Western diplomat
But there were fresh clashes overnight as, according to the Macedonian defence ministry, ethnic Albanian rebels attacked government positions to the north-east of the capital.

Nato Secretary-General George Robertson and the European Union's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, expressed hope as they arrived in Skopje for the ceremony.

"This is a very proud day for this country and for the parties of the coalition government, beccause they have developed an accord which is historic and which I believe marks the entry of Macedonia into modern day Europe," Lord Robertson said.

But observers and diplomats wave warned that it will be tough to make the peace deal stick.

"We'll get signatures on a piece of paper... but we're still talking to the rebels, and we don't know what they'll do," one western diplomat close to the negotiations told the French news agency AFP.

The peace document is the best hope for peace in Macedonia

US negotiator
James Pardew
Macedonian officials have insisted that the peace deal will be signed, despite the continuing conflict.

US envoy James Pardew urged both sides to make further efforts.

Ljuboten has come under repeated bombardment from rebels
"The peace document is the best hope for peace in Macedonia. The leaders should take this opportunity and sign the document," he said.

In Sunday night's clashes, which centred on the rebel strongholds around the northern town of Kumanovo, the army accused ethnic Albanian guerrillas of launching mortar and machine-gun attacks on police positions and responded with "all available means".

A government call on Sunday to "show goodwill" ahead of the signing of the peace deal and only fire if provoked was described by one rebel commander, as a "farce".

Nato is due to send in 3,500 troops to disarm the ethnic Albanian rebels, but not until further steps - including agreement on an amnesty for fighters - have been agreed.

The most realistic thing... is to undertake a very strong offensive to destroy the terrorists

Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski

A BBC correspondent in Skopje says events on the ground appear to be moving towards a sustained conflict, with the government's military response becoming increasingly robust in the battle for territory.

"The most realistic thing... is to undertake a very strong offensive to destroy the terrorists," said Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski.

Nato accused

The main road from Skopje to Macedonia's second city Tetovo has been closed by the authorities, and there were reports of more fighting near the northern border with Kosovo on Sunday.

Police roadblock near Skopje
Roads out of Skopje have been blocked
The Macedonian Government has demanded Nato action to stop what it says is infiltration by armed rebels from across the border there.

It said it had evidence that rebel incursions had led to Saturday's outbreak of fighting in the north.

Nato said it had no evidence of incursions from the UN-administered territory, but was taking the allegations seriously.

The defence ministry said security forces in the village of Radusa came under sustained attack for several hours on Sunday.

Troop reinforcements were flown in by helicopter and Sukhoi Su-25 ground attack jets also flew over the village.

Ljuboten villagers
Villagers watched as the shells came in over their houses
Heavy machine-gun and mortar fire was also reported in Tetovo, which has seen some of the heaviest fighting in the past.

The Macedonian Government believes the latest fighting is proof that the ethnic Albanian rebels will never agree to surrender their arms to Nato as the deal demands.

The ethnic Albanian rebels say they want greater rights for their community, which makes up an estimated 30% of Macedonia's population.

The BBC's Paul Adams
"A lot of difficult work lies ahead if this country is to be saved"
Balkan affairs expert Misha Glenny in Skopje
"Nobody is pretending this is going to be easy"
Brenda Pearson from International Crisis Group
"The signing of the agreement will pull the two sides apart on the battlefield"
Major Barry Johnson, spokesman for NATO
"There's still a great deal of hope here"

Key stories



See also:

12 Aug 01 | Europe
Macedonia urges Nato action
10 Aug 01 | Europe
Macedonia buries ambush victims
06 Aug 01 | Europe
Nato ready for Macedonia action
20 Mar 01 | Europe
The military balance
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