Skopje, Macedonia Political reform talks aimed at ending an ethnic Albanian insurgency will resume soon, with the next round to be in the strife-torn city of Tetovo as a symbol of negotiators' commitment to peace, Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski said Thursday.
A cease-fire that had broken down this week now appears to be restored, with the insurgents pulling back toward positions they had when the truce first took effect July 6, Western mediators said. The guerrillas, who launched their uprising in February, say they want greater rights for ethnic Albanians, while the government charges that they are seeking to split the country.
"The political process is back on track, and the cease-fire is back on track. Both things are of tremendous importance," European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana told a joint news conference in Skopje, the Macedonian capital.
NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson, speaking at the same news conference, declared: "We came as worried friends. We go away from here as hopeful friends because we had constructive discussions today."
Robertson said that, "with good will and flexibility," agreement on a reform package to satisfy ethnic Albanian demands for greater rights "should be (reached) in these next few days in the symbolic city of Tetovo.
"This country over the last few weeks has been on the edge of a precipice that would lead to a civil war, and a civil war in this country would have no victors but thousands upon thousands of casualties," Robertson said. "So I'm glad that from our discussions today it seems clear that people want to avoid that eventuality."
If political leaders on both sides of the ethnic divide can agree on a political reform package, guerrilla leaders will be asked to agree to a peace deal and to disarm. NATO has approved a standby plan for deploying 3,000 soldiers to help with disarmament.
The political talks have deadlocked primarily over the issue of whether Albanian should be made an official language. Ethnic Albanians make up at least a quarter of the country's population of 2 million.
In an action that could cloud prospects of the rebels cooperating in a peace deal, the Macedonian Interior Ministry on Thursday filed criminal charges against Ali Ahmeti, the guerrillas' political representative, and 10 other rebel leaders, whom it described as the heads of a "vicious terrorist band." They were charged with "crimes against humanity and of creating a criminal gang with the aim of secession of a part of Macedonia's territory and creating a 'Greater Albania' and 'Greater Kosovo.'"
In keeping with a deal reached Wednesday, guerrillas were reported Thursday to have pulled back from positions around Tetovo and along a road leading from that northwestern Macedonian city to the border with Kosovo, a province of Serbia, Yugoslavia's dominant republic. In return, the Macedonian government has promised that its security forces would exercise restraint.
Two busloads of ethnic Macedonians who had fled or been forced away from villages along that road returned to visit their homes Thursday after the rebels pulled back.
Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski said the political reform talks might resume as early as today in Tetovo.