Western mediators say Macedonian political leaders have agreed on greater official use of the Albanian language. The language issue was seen as a major stumbling block on the road to peace in the troubled former Yugoslav Republic. But United States and European Union mediators have already cautioned that several other difficult issues have yet to be resolved to end Macedonia's five-month old ethnic conflict.
After five days of tense negotiations, at a Presidential retreat in the lakeside city of Ohrid, political leaders agreed to make the Albanian language a more important part of Macedonian society.
U.S. envoy James Pardew described the language agreement as an important step toward peace in the troubled Balkan nation. "We are not out of the woods yet." he said. But we have gotten past, I think, the most difficult issue to be resolved."
Mr. Pardew says that finalizing an agreement on ending five months of ethnic conflict in Macedonia hinges on the outcome of talks on ethnic Albanian demands to have more control over local police, in regions where they form a majority.
"The next difficult issue is the nature of the police," he said. "Will they be locally controlled or centrally controlled from the Capital? And what will be the composition of the police force? We expect also this to be a very difficult negotiation."
Albanian political parties have made it clear that Macedonia's estimated 600,000 ethnic Albanians should have more say over who leads the police in areas where they form a majority.
But leaders of the Macedonian majority seem to fear that ethnic Albanian gunmen known as the National Liberation Army (NLA) could change their uniforms and join local police forces if these are no longer under central Government control. They are concerned that this will lead to the further break up of Macedonia.
Government officials insist the NLA wants to merge the largely ethnic Albanian areas of northern Macedonia with neighboring Kosovo. But NLA leaders assert their struggle is for equal rights for Macedonia's Albanian minority and say they are ready to continue their battle if no final peace agreement is reached.
NLA and Macedonian forces have been clashing since February. Western mediators have tried to convince all sides that time to avoid a full-scale civil war is running out. NATO has said it is ready to send about 3,000 peacekeepers to Macedonia, on the condition that representatives of ethnic Albanians and Macedonia's majority sign and respect a final peace agreement and political settlement.
Although violence has diminished in recent days as both sides observe a cease-fire, sporadic attacks continue as reminders that Macedonia remains volatile and a hotbed for ethnic hatred. At least one Macedonian police officer was killed early Wednesday, outside a police checkpoint near the city of Tetovo.