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Monday, 22 October, 2001, 11:33 GMT 12:33 UK
Macedonian police re-enter rebel areas
Macedonian police officer
The police deployment is a tentative step forward
Macedonian police officers have for the first time begun patrolling areas which were seized by ethnic Albanian rebels during their insurgency earlier this year.

Here is the need to start cautiously, in the spirit of confidence-building

Harald Schenker
As part of a western-backed peace deal, lightly-armed and ethnically mixed police units are to re-enter five villages and carry out limited patrols under the supervision of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

If Monday's deployment - which is seen as a test-run - passes off without incident, there are plans to expand it to other villages.

It is the first step forward for several weeks in the three-month-old peace process, which has become bogged down in the Macedonian parliament.

Macedonia map
The parliament is meant to be approving amendments to the constitution granting more rights to the country's Albanian minority, but the changes are unpopular with many Macedonians, and have been repeatedly delayed.

Under the deal, the proportion of ethnic Albanians in the police force is to be boosted to 25%, which will mean recruiting about 1,000 new officers over the next two years.

Ethnic Albanians make up roughly one third of the country's population.

Short patrols

OSCE spokesman Harald Schenker told BBC News Online he had observed police successfully entering the village of Tearce, near Macedonia's unofficial ethnic Albanian capital, Tetovo.

Operations were also taking place in nearby Lesok, as well as in Opaje and Lopate in the Kumanovo area, and in Grusino near the capital, Skopje.

KLA fighter hands in ammunition to Nato soldiers
Rebel fighters have given in thousands of weapons and ammunition
Mr Schenker said the officers were due to leave Tearce after completing a three-hour patrol but would return on a daily basis.

"This scheme is first and foremost a pilot project aimed at restoring confidence between the state and local inhabitants. There is the need to start cautiously, in the spirit of confidence-building," Mr Schenker said.

But he said the success of the operation, at least in Tearce, meant it was likely that the project would spread to other villages.

Political process

Since the signing of the peace deal at Lake Ohrid on 13 August the ethnic Albanian rebels have handed nearly 4,000 weapons to Nato peacekeepers.

Nato has urged the Macedonian leadership to keep its side of the bargain by making the constitutional amendments listed in the deal.

They were meant to have been passed within six weeks, but three months have already passed.

Parliament is now due to begin debating the changes on Wednesday.

In one important development, the Macedonian Government officially approved an amnesty for the rebels earlier this month.

The Lake Ohrid agreement was aimed at snuffing out the sparks of a conflict that began smouldering in February, when ethnic Albanians in the north and west of the country rose up, demanding better political representation and greater recognition of the Albanian language.

But Macedonian representatives have complained that they were forced into the deal at the barrel of a gun and have been reluctant to pass - and ultimately implement - the concessions to Albanian demands.

Western envoys have warned that any more delays in implementing the deal could lead to a new outbreak of violence.

The BBC's Raphael Jesurum
"Villagers welcomed the officers"

Key stories



See also:

02 Oct 01 | Europe
Pardew in Macedonia for talks
27 Sep 01 | Europe
Macedonia rebels 'disband'
27 Sep 01 | Europe
UN backs new Macedonia mission
31 Aug 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
Macedonia: Wobbling Balkans domino
01 Sep 01 | Europe
Macedonia's landscape of fear
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