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Macedonia talks hit snag over acceptance of Albanian language

SHARE Macedonia talks hit snag over acceptance of Albanian language

SKOPJE, Macedonia — Peace talks between Macedonia's rival ethnic groups hit a snag Tuesday over ethnic Albanian demands that their language be declared official alongside the majority Macedonian tongue.

Macedonians are "extremely reluctant" to accept that demand, although they have agreed to most other provisions of a Western-designed peace deal, a Macedonian party leader told the Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The seemingly minor cultural difference underscores the deep divisions and distrust between Macedonia's two main ethnic groups, both of which fear dominance by the other. Tensions have soared since February, when ethnic Albanian militants launched an insurgency.

Despite scattered clashes, a shaky cease-fire brokered earlier this month by NATO and the European Union largely held, but there are fears that fighting could resume in full force if the talks collapse.

U.S. envoy James Pardew and his European Union counterpart, Francois Leotard, continued their efforts Tuesday to persuade the feuding sides to sign the peace plan. In addition to the language provision, the plan would guarantee a "proportionate" representation of ethnic Albanians in the central and local governments, courts, police forces and education. A top ethnic Albanian representative, Iljaz Halimi, told the state-run MIA news agency that his side had agreed to a final draft proposal with the envoys and was awaiting a response from the Macedonians.

Ethnic Albanians account for nearly a third of Macedonia's 2 million people and live mostly in the north and northwest of the country. The rebels, who are well-armed and well-organized, continue to control dozens of villages in those areas and remain entrenched against government positions.

A decentralization of authority, which is also envisaged in the peace plan, would bring a degree of self-rule to ethnic Albanian-populated areas.

But in a commentary published Tuesday, the Macedonian-language daily Vecer warned that such a move could turn ethnic Albanian-populated regions into a "Wild West" where "local sheriffs" would rule independently.

In a separate report, the newspaper quoted unidentified military sources as saying that the rearming of Macedonia's army continued with fresh imports of "a number of multi-barrel rocket launchers." The report did not specify where Macedonia bought the weapons but described them as a version of Soviet-era, truck-mounted Katyusha rockets.

Ukraine's deputy defense minister, Aleksandar Stecenko, met Monday with his Macedonian counterpart, Vlado Buckovski, and a ministry statement said they discussed "barter arrangements" and aspects of military cooperation.

It was not immediately clear if the reported purchase was related to cooperation with Ukraine, which has already furnished Macedonia with several helicopter gunships — aircraft that the army has used heavily against the rebels.

If a peace deal is signed, the rebels would disarm under the supervision of some 3,000 NATO soldiers, who could be deployed within days of an agreement.