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Macedonians, ethnic Albanians talk with envoys

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TETOVO, Macedonia — Western envoys met Friday with Macedonian officials and ethnic Albanian representatives in separate talks ahead of a new round of high-level peace negotiations.

The two feuding groups had agreed to resume talks in the embattled northwestern city of Tetovo. But Saturday's talks were moved to the southern city of Ohrid to avoid potentially hostile crowds, a Western diplomat said.

Fighting raged early this week on the outskirts of Tetovo, and four area villages were captured by ethnic Albanian rebels.

The rebels have pulled back to lines they held at the start of a cease-fire July 5, but tensions remain high in and around Tetovo, a city of 60,000 where ethnic Albanians constitute a majority.

On Friday, a police post came under fire from ethnic Albanian insurgents 12 miles northeast of Tetovo, government officials said. No one was injured in the half-hour skirmish, authorities said.

Guerrillas also clashed with a patrol near the Albanian border, the private TV station SITEL said. The guerrillas were driven off, the report said. There was no word about casualties.

Ohrid is located on a lake in southwest Macedonia, far removed from contested territory. President Boris Trajkovski suggested the venue, the Western diplomat said.

Ethnic Albanian militants launched their insurgency in February, saying they were fighting for greater rights for ethnic Albanians, who make up nearly a third of Macedonia's 2 million people.

The Macedonian government alleges the rebels are linked to militants in neighboring Kosovo, and accuses them of trying to carve out territory from Macedonia.

Western diplomats and Macedonian officials held a series of meetings in Skopje on Friday involving envoys James Pardew of the United States and Francois Leotard of the European Union. In the afternoon, the envoys met with ethnic Albanian leaders in Tetovo.

"We discussed the language issue with the parties," Pardew told reporters in Tetovo.

The language issue has been the most contentious — and the main reason talks collapsed last week.

Under a draft plan, Albanian would become an official language in areas where ethnic Albanians account for more than 20 percent of the population. The wording on this point apparently was reworked in an attempt to make it more acceptable to Macedonians who rejected the earlier provision, an ethnic Albanian official said.

Arben Xhaferi, leader of the biggest Albanian party in Macedonia, hinted that the Macedonian side had misinterpreted the original phrasing of the language provision.

After rephrasing by the envoys, "I think we are working with a good formula now," Xhaferi said.