Crucial vote on peace plan clears Macedonian parliament
Thursday, September 6, 2001
Associated Press WriterSKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) -- Macedonia's peace process cleared a crucial test Thursday as parliament backed its overall framework and opened the way for NATO to resume collecting weapons from ethnic Albanian rebels.
The vote passed 91-19, with two abstentions, following a nearly weeklong process in which many lawmakers assailed the pact but conceded the consequences of defiance were too grave.
Parliament backing was vital to the effort to end the six-month-old conflict. But the assembly was only asked whether to back the general concept of the accord: granting wider ethnic Albanian rights in exchange for rebel disarmament.
The difficult -- and potentially disruptive -- details come next. Lawmakers will now have to decide on the specific constitutional changes.
Under the accord, brokered by American and European mediators, ethnic Albanians would receive greater political autonomy and authority to use Albanian as the official language in some areas. Ethnic Albanians make up about a third of the nation's 2 million people.
"This peace process is crucial to regional security," said German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who was in Skopje. The European Union has offered the nation increased aid if the peace process moves forward.
Rejection would have thrown the peace process into chaos.
NATO was awaiting the parliament decision to resume collecting weapons from the rebel National Liberation Army, or NLA, possibly immediately after the vote or Friday. It has already taken more than a third of the 3,300-piece arsenal to be surrendered by late this month.
"I am an optimist ... both sides are fed up with war," said NLA spokesman Nazim Beqiri.
But there were signs the rebels were prepared for any contingency in case the deal stumbles later.
A group of fighters, holding semiautomatic rifles, trained in formation in Lipkovo, about 12 miles northeast of Skopje.
"We are brave soldiers," they chanted.
And an incident Tuesday underscored the tensions.
A Macedonian paramilitary gunman fired on an ethnic Albanian police officer driving near the city of Tetovo, said NATO spokesman Maj. Barry Johnson. The officer was not injured, but British NATO soldiers intervened to prevent a clash between the paramilitary unit and armed ethnic Albanian civilians, he said.
"The main goal of the world community is to prevent the development of the situation in Macedonia from leading to destabilization of the situation and not to worsen the already difficult situation in the Balkans," said Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov in Moscow.
He met with Western envoys seeking possible Russian support for an international presence in Macedonia after the NATO mission.