Ethnic Albanian rebels accept government-declared amnesty

Friday, October 12th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) _ NATO on Friday praised ethnic Albanian rebels for accepting a government-declared amnesty but cautioned that the alliance and Western monitors overseeing the country's fragile peace have yet to see ``how the amnesty works out in practice.''

The rebels _ known as the National Liberation Army _ said Thursday they welcomed the move earlier this week by President Boris Trajkovski and the government to pardon them for their role in the conflict.

The rebel statement, signed by rebel leader Ali Ahmeti, said the NLA accepts the amnesty declaration as an ``expression of political goodwill.''

But it also reiterated earlier demands by ethnic Albanian politicians that the amnesty be passed into law by parliament and called for the release of all ethnic Albanians detained for participating in the six months of clashes that began in February.

``Ahmeti's statement is a good sign and ... a genuine, positive development,'' said Claus Vollers, NATO's ambassador to Macedonia. ``But we now have to see how the amnesty works out in practice, how it translates into reality.''

The peace accord signed Aug. 13 halted fighting that killed dozens and threatened to bloom into all-out war. The rebels took up arms, saying they were fighting for broader rights for their ethnic minority, about a third of Macedonia's 2 million population.

Complying with provisions of the peace agreement, the rebels have handed in more than 4,000 weapons to NATO troops in return for promised changes in the constitution that would put ethnic Albanians on an equal footing with majority Macedonians.

Hard-liners in the Macedonian parliament oppose changes to the constitution and have since stalled the adoption of 15 constitutional amendments meant to upgrade ethnic Albanian rights.

Macedonian leaders see the amnesty as a stepping stone for government troops to move back into rebel-held areas.

But NATO and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have called for a gradual return only after confidence-building measures _ such as a joint police force _ are in place.

Vollers said that only a ``working amnesty will facilitate the return'' and dispel rebel fears.

A top Western envoy said the West is ``absolutely committed'' to the return of Macedonian forces to rebel territories.

``But we are also coming down from a very tense period, so if they do this badly, it can reverse all the success we've had so far,'' he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Some ethnic Albanian officials doubt the sincerity of Macedonian lawmakers to follow through on the amnesty.

Refet Elmazi, a deputy interior minister and an ethnic Albanian, said that just days before the amnesty was declared, police raided villages in efforts to apprehend armed young ethnic Albanian men and arrested about 50 people.

A rebel source said without elaboration that Macedonian police tried to raid Vaksince, a village 22 miles northeast of Skopje two nights ago but ``were stopped'' by the NLA.