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Macedonia Peace Deal Presents Challenges

The peace agreement signed Monday in Skopje is intended to end a six-month ethnic Albanian insurgency and return peace and stability to Macedonia. But serious doubts that the accord will succeed are already being voiced.

NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson says the accord is a huge step forward that will bring normal life back to Macedonia.

The accord gives official status to the Albanian language and more rights and autonomy to the country's ethnic Albanian minority, something the rebels said they were fighting for.

The accord was signed by Macedonia's principal Albanian and Macedonian political parties. But the rebels did not take part in the peace negotiations and did not sign the draft document, although some rebel commanders endorsed it.

Jonathan Benton is the deputy director of the U.S. State Department's office of southern European affairs. He says the critical next step is achieving the viable cease-fire that NATO is insisting upon, before it dispatches a disarmament mission to Macedonia.

"A key to the accord will be rapid deployment of a NATO force, and the key to that is the continued holding of the cease-fire. And working out any remaining issues related to the deployment of a NATO force," said Mr. Benton.

NATO is working out plans to send 3,500 troops under a British commander to disarm the rebels. The NATO mission could involve troops from a dozen countries and last 30 days.

However, skepticism remains in Macedonia about whether the National Liberation Army (NLA) rebels will abide by the agreement, and whether the accord can truly bring peace to a country where six months of fighting has embittered both sides.

Sam Vaknin, a political analyst in Skopje who has advised the Macedonian government, sees the agreement as weighted in favor of the Albanians. He says it was imposed by NATO and the European Union on a reluctant and weak Macedonian government.

"With the exception of the provision for disarmament of the rebels, this country or part of it, is under the occupation of a foreign power, the NLA," he said. "Yet it has been forced to sign a peace agreement with the propagators of this breach of sovereignty and territorial integrity. I call this a repeat of the Sudeten situation," referring to 1938, when the major powers forced Czechoslovakia to cede its German-populated border regions to Hitler.

Mr. Vaknin says most of the rebels come from the neighboring Serbian province of Kosovo, which is predominantly ethnic Albanian. He believes the insurgency will continue. And he is concerned about recent signs of splits within the rebel movement.

"The NLA has been fracturing consistently within the past two months. And splinter groups of the NLA, very akin to the [dissident] Real IRA in Ireland, have taken arms and have commenced operations in Montenegro, in south Serbia in the Presevo valley, and, in the last few days, here in Macedonia, in Tetovo," said Mr. Vaknin. "The fighting is likely to spread to the Albanian border, in Debar and to Gostivar. And the villages around Skopje are prime targets. So I don't think the fighting is over."

However, the peace accord could open the way to new economic aid and investment.

The World Bank and European Union are promising to convene a donors conference for Macedonia. And a suspended loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund could soon be re-instated. The head of the EU-sponsored Stability Pact for the Balkans, Bodo Hombach, hailed the accord, calling it the conciliatory political signal we all waited for.