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Macedonia declares a national cease-fire

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SKOPJE, Macedonia — The Macedonian government announced a nationwide cease-fire Thursday with ethnic Albanian rebels whose four-month insurgency has threatened political stability in this Balkan country.

NATO troops will be deployed to disarm the rebels as a key element of the agreement. U.S. troops will handle logistics, NATO spokesman Paul Barnard said, without elaborating on whether that would be their only role or explaining what logistics entailed.

The open-ended cease-fire, brokered by NATO and the European Union, came a day after President Boris Trajkovski announced progress in political dialogue. The cease-fire takes effect just after midnight Thursday, said Defense Minister Vlado Buckovski.

Preceding the cease-fire, the government reported heavy fighting overnight around Kumanovo, about 15 miles northeast of the capital, one of the conflict's hot spots. The attack from the rebel-held areas around Slupcane continued until around 6 a.m. No injuries were reported.

Some 3,000 NATO troops from 15 nations, including the United States, were expected to be deployed as early as mid-month, and the actual disarmament would begin two weeks later, Buckovski said. British forces will lead the operation, which is expected to be completed in four to six weeks.

"Once we have seen the cease-fire will last and we see progress in political dialogue, we will be ready to commit troops," Barnard said in Skopje.

The final composition of the disarmament force has not been determined, but Barnard said British troops working with Greek, Italian and French forces would be directly involved in the disarmament.

"It is a major step forward," the Macedonian president's national security adviser, Nikola Dimitrov, told Associated Press Television News. "Of course it is not the end of the crisis, but it will create the conditions for political dialogue and of course it is one of the conditions for disarmament to be realized."

Macedonia's chief of general staff, Pande Petrevski, signed a cease-fire agreement Thursday in Skopje, and Ali Ahmeti, political leader of the rebels' National Liberation Army, signed separately Wednesday evening.

"The cease-fire is different from the ones before and more important because this one was brokered by the EU, U.S. and NATO leaders as a way to create conditions to resume political dialogue," said Gezim Ostreni, the rebels' military chief.

He said the rebels would abide by any political agreement as long as it provides equality for Macedonia's ethnic Albanian minority.

The cease-fire deal also provides for early parliamentary elections in November and includes amnesty for rebels who have not committed any crime during the insurgency, Buckovski said.

The elections seek to provide better proportional representation for the Albanian minority, who make up about a third of the country's 2 million people but control only 25 seats in the 120-member national legislature.

The breakthrough came amid heightened international diplomatic efforts by EU and U.S. envoys dispatched after rioting 10 days ago brought the country to the brink of civil war. EU envoy Francois Leotard and his U.S. counterpart, James Pardew, told reporters that the cease-fire "sets a positive atmosphere for the new political dialogue."

NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana welcomed the cease-fire, emphasizing that it creates the opportunity to make significant progress in the political dialogue.

"As we have repeatedly stated, there can be no military solution to the present conflict — only a political solution can provide lasting peace and stability in the country and in the wider region," they said in a joint statement. "We call upon all parties to respect fully these cease-fire declarations and to act with utmost discipline and restraint in avoiding incidents that could lead to a return to violence."

The rebels launched their insurgency in February, saying their fight centered on securing greater rights and recognition for ethnic Albanians. The government contends the militants are bent on seizing territory, and it has refused to negotiate directly with the insurgents.

On Wednesday, Trajkovski announced that leaders of the country's major Macedonian Slavic and Albanian parties had agreed to launch expert-level talks on reforms to better protect the rights of ethnic Albanians.

Experts began meeting Wednesday and were expected to have a draft proposal ready over the weekend, a Cabinet source said. The issues under discussion include demands by ethnic Albanian political leaders for wider use of their language in official business and proportional representation in government institutions and strengthening local government.

Albanian leaders also want the constitution to include provisions that will allow the Albanian minority to override future parliamentary decisions that have an impact on the minority — one of the most contentious issues.

A French constitutional expert, Robert Badinter, last week recommended against this measure, saying it runs counter to current democratic trends.