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Friday, 31 August, 2001, 20:02 GMT 21:02 UK
Macedonia head backs peace deal
Soldiers monitor protesters
Nationalist protesters hold a bible outside parliament
Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski has urged deputies at a historic parliamentary debate to ratify a peace accord.

He says the agreement is not perfect "but it is the best thing we have right now".

The debate got underway several hours late after huge crowds of angry protesters blocked entrances to the Macedonian parliament, preventing deputies from entering.

But riot police moved in and cleared a path to the door.

Ethnic Albanian rebels
Rebel weapons include this captured tank
There are now about 80 of the nation's 116 parliamentarians inside the building and they have begun debating reforms seen as crucial to the peace process.

The reforms up for debate include proposals to give greater rights to the ethnic Albanian minority, and they form part of an agreement to end six months of fighting between government forces and ethnic Albanian rebels.

Rebels unarmed

Meanwhile, the United Nations has announced that 140 Albanians who say they have left the Macedonian rebels have crossed into Kosovo.

UN spokesman Andrea Angelli said the men were unarmed and, because they held valid Macedonian passports, were not detained unlike a similar group last week.

Spokesmen of the K-For peacekeepers said it was a good sign if former rebels were leaving the combat zone.

Zehir Bekteshi from the ethnic Albanian Democratic Prosperity Party had to outrun a protester after being punched and kicked.


The future of this agreement is in the hands of 116 members of the Macedonian parliament

UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw

The BBC correspondent in Skopje says the reforms are unpopular with many Macedonians.

Deputies will not vote the changes into law until Nato confirms that ethnic Albanian rebels, who have been fighting the Macedonian army, have handed over all the arms they have undertaken to surrender.

No to Nato

Demonstrators shouted slogans and waved Macedonian flags and banners saying "Nato and USA - leave Macedonia within 48 hours" and "We demand the resignation of the whole government".

Under the peace accord, the Macedonian parliament should begin discussing the reforms once one third of rebel weapons had been handed over to Nato troops.

On Thursday, Nato said its forces had collected more than 1,400 weapons out of an agreed total figure of 3,300 in the first three days of its 30-day mission.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw
Jack Straw says he won commitments to reforms

The Macedonian Government, however, says the rebels could possess as many as 60,000 weapons and some politicians claim the guerrillas have only handed over obsolete arms while hiding their more modern equipment in the mountains.

The BBC's Jacky Rowland in Skopje says strong international pressure and the votes of Albanian deputies will probably make parliament pass this initial hurdle, although plenty of other sticking points lie ahead.

Gunfire

The measures which are being debated include making Albanian an official language in some parts of the country, increasing the number of Albanians in the police force and granting greater autonomy to local governments in ethnic Albanian areas.

UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, on a one-day visit to Macedonia on Thursday, said he had won commitments to the reforms from the country's main political parties.

"One doesn't have to spell out the consequences of the alternative. The future of this agreement is in the hands of 116 members of the Macedonian parliament," he said.

Mr Straw's visit came amid reports of isolated outbreaks of gunfire, and an explosion in the Albanian quarter of Skopje - the fourth to hit the capital in as many days.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Frank Gardner
with news of a reported delay to the Nato-backed peace plan for Macedonia
The BBC's Andrew Gilligan
reports on what will happen at the end of the thirty day period

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See also:

31 Aug 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
Macedonia: Wobbling Balkans domino
31 Aug 01 | Media reports
Macedonian leader urges unity
30 Aug 01 | Europe
Nato collects first third of arms
22 Aug 01 | Europe
Is Nato's mission impossible?
27 Jul 01 | Europe
Macedonia's peace plan
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