SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) _ Ethnic Albanian rebels have said their guerrilla force no longer exists, but Macedonian authorities have struck an uncompromising tone in their first response to the conciliatory move by the insurgents.
In announcing Thursday that his troops had disbanded, rebel leader Ali Ahmeti said they were holding no hostages and suggested it was time to commit to reconciliation instead of war. The rebels also voluntarily handed over nearly 3,400 weapons to NATO in exchange for broader political and other rights that majority Macedonians have yet to enact in the country's parliament.
In a statement hours after Ahmeti's announcement, the Macedonian government said a crisis committee was working on ``creating conditions for a lasting return of displaced persons and for freeing all persons abducted by (ethnic) Albanian terrorists.''
A top adviser to President Boris Trajkovski told the state-run news agency MIA that the government will no longer tolerate any new challenge to its authority.
``Macedonia's security forces are no longer obliged to act in a restricted manner,'' said Stevo Pendarovski, referring to an earlier cease-fire that had opened way for the peace process. ``Any provocations or attacks against security forces ... will be treated as threats against the state and all such persons (who attack) will be legitimate targets.''
Earlier, Ahmeti said all members of the guerrilla force would return to civilian life and that ``we should all contribute toward making the situation better.''
He also suggested loyalty to the state in which ethnic Albanian and other minorities will share power with Macedonians as equals, when and if the complex peace plan becomes reality.
Virtually none of the provisions of the plan have been enacted in the legislature. The current Macedonian-dominated government has not acted to grant amnesty to the rebels, despite requests by NATO and Western mediators.
Some ethnic Albanians remained skeptical, including Deshire Abazaga, who said the rebels should not have disbanded.
``It would have been better if they continued fighting until achieving all the rights they had started to fight for,'' she said.
Macedonians also remained suspicious.
``If this is really happening, it would indicate the end of the armed conflict in Macedonia,'' said Radmila Secerinska of the Social Democrats, one of Macedonia's main parties.
But ``if attacks and provocations continue ... military means will have to be used'' again against the rebels, she said.
Gjorgji Trendafilov, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski's VMRO party, focused on the tens of thousands driven from their homes during the conflict, saying: ``It's important now to allow people to return to their homes.''
Also Thursday, parts of NATO's 4,500-strong mission that collected the rebel weaponry started redeploying. About 125 Spaniards and 35 Britons left the country, while the alliance worked up details of yet another mission in the troubled Balkan country.
The new mission, code-named Amber-Fox and expected to be fully operational within weeks, will provide security to civilian peace monitors overseeing further stages of Macedonia's continuing peace process.