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Macedonians say they plan to retake rebel-held areas despite international warnings


SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) _ Macedonian government forces plan to retake control of areas held by ethnic Albanian militants, the country's interior minister said Wednesday _ ignoring international officials' warnings that such a move could derail the peace process.

Security forces would move into ethnically Albanian areas considered low-risk on Thursday, said Ljube Boskoski, Macedonia's hardline interior minister and police chief.

``Starting tomorrow, Macedonia's security forces, with light arms and with (ethnically) mixed patrols will enter regions near Tetovo and Skopje,'' Boskoski said, referring to two contested areas populated primarily by the restive ethnic Albanian community.

A Western diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Western officials were very concerned by the plans.

``A premature return of Macedonian security forces to the sensitive areas could reverse the peace process,'' he said.

Though the West generally supports the government's claims to the entire country, they have warned that haste could spark violence.

Meanwhile, a car exploded at the main square in Macedonia's capital, Skopje, killing one person and seriously injuring another. Police spokesman Vasko Sutarov said authorities were uncertain if the explosion had been caused by a bomb.

No other details were available about the early afternoon explosion.

The blast is likely to add further uncertainty to the overall security situation on the eve of Boskoski's incursion. He said he expected no problems with resistance from ethnic Albanian militants, but added that the ``security situation remains complex,'' and that ``not everything may develop as we plan.''

Risto Galevski, a senior police official, said the move was necessary because of ``enormous pressure by displaced Macedonians'' who now want to go home after having fled their homes in mainly ethnic Albanian-populated areas.

NATO representatives and Western diplomats have urged Macedonians to enact key provisions of the peace accord before moving into rebel-held areas.

Boskoski claimed that the operation would be conducted in cooperation with and under the presence of NATO officers and civilian peace monitors.

NATO spokesman Mark Laity, however, told The Associated Press: ``We certainly have no agreement on this.''

Ethnic Albanian militants took up arms in February, demanding broader rights and more political influence. Dozens have died since the fighting subsided after the August signing of a peace accord.

The rebels have surrendered nearly 3,400 weapons, but the Macedonian-dominated parliament has not enacted the requisite reforms. It has also ignored Western peace brokers' calls for amnesty for the rebels _ a provision diplomats say is essential before forces move into rebel-held territory.

There have been several violations of a tense truce during the past several days. Macedonian police accused ethnic Albanian militants of scattered gunfire against police checkpoints in the volatile northwest of the country, populated mostly by the ethnic Albanians.
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