Macedonia's rival political leaders signed a landmark peace accord today aimed at ending six months of bloody conflict and clearing the way for NATO troops to disarm ethnic Albanian rebels.
Political leaders representing the Balkan country's Macedonian majority and its minority ethnic Albanian population formally endorsed the agreement, which gives ethnic Albanians a larger share of power in the police ranks, parliament and education.
NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson, European Union envoy Javier Solana, French mediator Francois Leotard and U.S. envoy James Pardew were among those attending the signing ceremony at President Boris Trajkovski's residence.
Robertson called it "a remarkable moment for the history of Macedonia. This day marks the entry of Macedonia into modern, mainstream Europe."
Hoping for Peace From Now On
Although details still must be worked out, the accord paves the way for NATO to send in 3,500 troops to disarm the rebels. The British-led mission, dubbed Operation Essential Harvest, would last 30 days and include troops from the United States, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Greece, Netherlands, Norway, Turkey, Hungary and the Czech Republic.
"This is the day when we can begin an end to this conflict and take all the political issues off the table," said Pardew, who helped broker the accord last week. "After this day, there should be no reason for fighting."
But before the NATO troops can be deployed, there will have to be a "durable cease-fire," Robertson cautioned. He gave no timetable for deployment.
"Clearly, there has to be a sustainable cease-fire and clear indications from the insurgents that they mean business in terms of disarming completely and handing over their weapons and ammunition to the NATO troops when they come," he said.
Ahead of the signing, Macedonia's government reinstated a cease-fire that had gone ignored over the past two weeks. Trajkovski ordered government forces to stop shooting Sunday "to show goodwill and give a chance" to the peace deal, state television reported.
Reason for Pessimism
But despite the cease-fire — which one rebel commander called a "farce" — there was heavy fighting overnight in the north of the country.
The army accused the insurgents of launching mortar and machine-gun fire on police positions near the rebel strongholds of Slupcane and Orizare, prompting the government to vow it would respond "by all available means."
Heavy detonations from the fighting in the north could be heard until 3 a.m. (0100 GMT) throughout Skopje, the capital. On Sunday, troops backed by tanks and warplanes fought the rebels on the outskirts the capital and several other fronts.
Government troops pounded the ethnic Albanian village of Ljuboten, just three miles north of Skopje, with mortars and tank fire with a barrage that lasted until late Sunday afternoon. The government said the strike was prompted by an earlier rebel attack.
Speaking from Tetovo, Macedonia's second-largest city, Arben Xhaferi, an ethnic Albanian leader who participated in the peace talks, said Sunday: "We are willing to sign a deal, but physically we cannot go to Skopje now" because of the fighting.
A rebel spokesman who goes by the name of Besniku, or Faith, said about 50 ethnic Albanian civilians had been killed over the last three days alone, but could not estimate rebel casualties.
The United Nations Gives Backing
In New York, the U.N. Security Council called an unscheduled meeting Monday to endorse the peace deal and call for all parties to abide by it.
The militants took up arms in February, saying they were fighting for more rights for ethnic Albanians, who account for about a third of Macedonia's population of 2 million. The Macedonian government contends the rebels simply want to seize territory.