Macedonia's government and political parties representing the country's ethnic Albanian minority have began peace talks, in what is seen as a last effort to avoid all out civil war in the troubled Balkan nation. The negotiators and Western diplomats are meeting in a presidential retreat near Lake Ohrid in southwestern Macedonia.
Political leaders representing Macedonia's ethnic Albanians and the country's Macedonian majority seem to hope that the spectacular surroundings near Lake Ohrid, far away from the violence, is the right peaceful atmosphere to reach a deal to end the fighting.
Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski earlier suggested the talks be held in Tetovo because of its significance as the unofficial capital of Macedonia's Albanian minority. That plan was aborted however because of security concerns following days of clashes around the town between Macedonian forces and ethnic Albanian rebels.
European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who visited Macedonia Thursday, told reporters earlier that he is hopeful that the recent withdrawal of Albanian gunmen from the region to their previous position will speed a political settlement.
But there are stumbling blocks.
The U.S. envoy and mediator, James Pardew, says one of the issues is the ethnic Albanian demand to make Albanian the second language of Macedonia. "We discussed the language issue with the parties. Now we are going to have a little bit of socializing with them and we are going on to Ohrid where the talks will continue," he said.
Analysts say the language issue cuts to the heart of the deep cultural differences between the Macedonian majority of Slavic origin and ethnic Albanians, who make up about one-third of the country's population of two-million. Under a proposed compromise, Albanian would become official only in area's where ethnic Albanians account for more than 20 percent of the population.
Another sticking point is the Albanian community's wish to have more influence over such matters as education, police, and local government. Several Slav politicians oppose the move, saying that this would lead to the break-up of Macedonia.
But Western envoys have made it clear they believe finding a political settlement is the only way to avoid all out civil war. Western diplomats fear that fighting will resume if the talks break down.
As a precaution, the United States already ordered non-emergency U.S. embassy personnel and their dependents to leave Macedonia and has advised other Americans to do the same. The order was issued after an attack by angry Macedonians against the U.S. embassy and other diplomatic missions earlier this week in the capital, Skopje.
The demonstrators accused Western countries of supporting the Albanian side in the five-month ethnic conflict, a charge strongly denied by NATO and European Union officials.