Macedonian parliament debate reflects obstacles ahead to peace

Friday, September 21st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) _ Macedonian legislators lashed out Friday against proposed constitutional changes meant to give ethnic Albanians greater rights, one of the pillars of a Western-backed peace plan. The marathon session reflected obstacles ahead for a final settlement.

The bitter legislative debate came as NATO entered the third stage of its mission to collect some 3,300 weapons that ethnic Albanian rebels agreed to surrender under the deal signed last month.

Under the peace plan, parliament is to approve constitutional amendments granting the country's ethnic Albanian minority greater rights in exchange for the rebels handing in the weapons they are willing to surrender and disbanding.

The alliance already has collected more than 2,200 weapons. Parliament convened Thursday after hours of delay to discuss the amendments before the last third was collected.

Before adjourning early Friday, the majority of Macedonian legislators spoke out against a proposed amendment that would describe all the citizens of the country as on the same footing in the constitution. Instead, they demanded keeping the present language that sets apart Macedonians from minorities, including ethnic Albanians, who make up more than a third of the population.

Such a move is bound to be rejected by ethnic Albanians seeking equal rights and threaten the peace process.

The discussion in parliament also had been delayed by another potentially disruptive issue: a proposal to put the constitutional amendments to a referendum.

A vote was planned for later in the day on whether to accept the draft amendments and send them to a final vote, to be held once the present _ and final _ stage of weapons collection ends.

On Thursday, rebels adhering to the peace plan surrendered a prized battle tank, and a senior insurgent commander said the armed struggle for ethnic Albanian rights was over.

``There will be no continuation of the fighting,'' said Gezim Ostreni, military commander of the so-called National Liberation Army, the ethnic Albanian guerrilla force that began its insurrection in February. ``We remain resolved to continue disarmament.''

At Radusa, a village in rebel-held territory near the northern border to Kosovo, Col. Philippe Bras, in charge of the final stage of the arms-culling effort, said he expected about 200 weapons to be handed over in the next two days. Weapons collection continued Friday.

In another development, police on Friday announced the detention of eight suspects in the killing of a British soldier. The soldier died last month after being hit by a block of concrete thrown from an overpass.

Despite the optimism of the Albanian rebels' military chief, Ostreni, some lower-ranked commanders said they would return to fighting if the Macedonian government did not respect the peace deal.

The NATO arms-collecting mission is slated to end Wednesday. A Macedonian government request for a small NATO force to protect international monitors after that was being discussed at alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.