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Macedonia's Political Leaders Making Progress In Peace Talks - 2001-08-01

Macedonia's political leaders are reportedly making progress in their efforts to end fighting between government forces and ethnic-Albanian rebels.

The closed-door talks between representatives of Macedonia's political parties are said to be near agreement on one of the key issues, language.

Imer Imeri, the leader of one Albanian party involved in the talks, said the two sides were close to a deal on greater official use of the Albanian language. Mr. Imeri said "most of the work has been done" on a compromise formula that would grant the Albanian language semiofficial status in the local and central governments.

The language issue has been the toughest problem for the negotiators. In the past, Macedonian leaders have said giving the minority language equal status would lead to an ethnic division of the country.

About one-third of Macedonia's two million people speak Albanian as their mother tongue.

But though the two sides may be drawing closer, agreement on the language issue is by no means assured. Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski's spokesman said Tuesday that Macedonia "already has a liberal language policy" for non-official use of Albanian in print and broadcast media.

Reports of progress in the peace talks comes as more than 100 U.S. troops and support personnel have been withdrawn from Macedonia and about another 100 are expected to leave by the end of the week.

A Pentagon spokesman said the move was made for security reasons, citing recent mob violence against Western targets in Skopje, including the U.S. embassy.

Three hundred troops will remain at the Skopje airport as part of a logistics and surveillance base that supports U.S. peacekeepers in Kosovo, and provides intelligence on movements of Albanian guerrillas in Macedonia.

Meanwhile, although violence has diminished in recent days, a Macedonian police officer was killed early Wednesday outside a police checkpoint near Tetovo, a town in western Macedonia where Albanians are in the majority.