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Despite convoy attack, negotiators prepare for Macedonia peace talks

SHARE Despite convoy attack, negotiators prepare for Macedonia peace talks

OHRID, Macedonia — Negotiators expressed hope Monday that peace talks could bring results soon, despite an attack on a convoy carrying Macedonia's interior minister that was seen as a setback to peace efforts.

"If we are lucky, we will complete (talks) today. We're still discussing the language issue, subsequent constitutional changes and the police," said Gjorgji Spasov of the moderate Social Democratic Alliance of Macedonia. "If we are not lucky, we will continue onwards."

European Union envoy Francois Leotard also voiced optimism about efforts to end five bitter months of conflict between Macedonian troops and ethnic Albanian rebels. In comments to France-Inter radio in France, Leotard said that although the negotiations were "extraordinarily difficult," a will to succeed could override problems.

The encouraging words came a day after Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski's convoy was fired on by gunmen as it headed to a village where refugees were returning to their homes. No one was injured in the ambush near the village of Grupcin, about 15 miles from Skopje.

In a statement, Boskovski blamed the attack on ethnic Albanian rebels and called on "the police and the army to establish control over the entire Macedonian territory."

Within hours, the Defense Ministry said ethnic Albanian rebels based in the northern village of Gajre had also attacked army positions in the nearby village of Lavce, wounding four soldiers, two of them seriously.

Sunday's talks bogged down on highly contentious proposals to make Albanian an official language and let local mayors select their own police chiefs.

In an apparent concession to majority Macedonians, a compromise was on the table to make Albanian official only in areas where ethnic Albanians account for more than 20 percent of the population. Ethnic Albanians, however, were holding out for equal recognition.

"Albanians will have a wide range of opportunities to use their language as the second official (language)," Spasov said.

Discussions also focused on the proportionate participation of minorities in the police force, Spasov said.

"The majority of participants believe that the draft proposal should be signed soon. That would enable subsequent disarming of the terrorists," he added.

Peace had resumed Monday morning at the southwestern lakeside presidential retreat of Ohrid.

Things were relatively calm on Monday. Defense Ministry spokesman Marjan Gjurovski said rebels fired on government forces at Mount Sara, near Tetovo, but troops did not return fire.

Ethnic Albanians account for about a third of the Balkan country's 2 million people. The rebels say they are fighting for greater rights for their people; the government alleges they are linked to militants in neighboring Kosovo and are trying to carve out territory.