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Thursday, 17 May, 2001, 16:27 GMT 17:27 UK
Macedonian Government changes tack
Ethnic Albanians flee from the village of Matejce, near Kumanovo
The deadline prompted many villagers to flee the conflict zone
By south-east Europe analyst Gabriel Partos

Macedonia's President, Boris Trajkovski, has said security forces will not start fresh operations against ethnic Albanian guerrillas, despite the passing of a deadline for the fighters to lay down their arms or leave.

The statement from Mr Trajkovski's office came amid reports from western diplomats that talks on bringing the fighting to an end were close to producing an agreement.

There has been huge international pressure in recent days to prevent a flare-up in the fighting, which has been less intense since the formation of a government of national unity at the weekend.

Macedonia's President, Boris Trajkovski
In effect, Trajkovski ignored the passing of the deadline
The message of restraint was conveyed to the Macedonian leadership, shortly before the deadline was due to expire, by a high-level delegation from the European Union.

The Swedish Foreign Minister, Anna Lindh, whose country holds the current EU presidency, made it clear that the West wants the negotiations to go ahead - and if military force is used, it should be limited in such a way as to avoid civilian casualties:

"A new government now has a heavy responsibility in front of it - that is to ensure that a military response will be strictly proportionate, that the government can press ahead with inter-ethnic dialogue and all the time look forward to good progress," she said.

Change of approach

The Macedonian administration has responded by, in effect, ignoring the expiry of its deadline to the guerrillas.

But international pressure was probably only one of the reasons behind this change of approach.

As President Trajkovski's latest statement indicates, the ultimatum has had some effect by persuading several hundred ethnic Albanian villagers in the conflict zone to leave their homes.

That would reduce any civilian casualties if the security forces were to launch an offensive.

A reduction in the civilian population would also undermine the Albanian fighters' ability to use classic guerrilla tactics - such as sheltering behind non-combatants or using the local population's help to get food and other essential supplies.

Fragile coalition

But there are probably other important reasons for Skopje's decision to put off any offensive for the time being.

Ethnic Albanian rebels
Western diplomats believe a breakthrough with the rebels may be imminent

Large-scale casualties among the ethnic Albanian population could scupper the newly-formed grand coalition.

That is because the ethnic Albanian representatives who have just joined the government might leave it straight away.

Besides, there is no guarantee that an offensive would be successful.

And, even if the army managed to evict the guerrillas from the villages around the town of Kumanovo, the fighters might later pop up elsewhere.

Tightening the noose

Meanwhile, Western officials have also been tightening the diplomatic noose around the guerrillas.

On a visit to Tirana on Thursday, Nato's Secretary-General George Robertson said that the alliance would provide further military assistance to Macedonia.

The Macedonian administration's decision to refrain from a large-scale assault may not in itself make much difference.

Indeed, it could leave in place the status quo - skirmishes between the two sides - for quite a while.

Negotiations needed

However, Western diplomats believe there may now be a chance for a breakthrough - that is, persuading the ethnic Albanian fighters to halt their operations.

But for this breakthrough to happen, there would almost certainly need to be signs of progress at the negotiating table.

In other words, leaders on the two sides of the ethnic divide need to show a readiness to strike a bargain that would increase the ethnic Albanians' collective rights.

Otherwise, the militants might renew their activities, as well as their demand - which few Macedonian or international officials would want to concede - that the guerrilla groups should be recognized as a negotiating partner.

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See also:

17 May 01 | Europe
Macedonia says ceasefire working
23 Mar 01 | Europe
The military balance
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