NATO Secretary General George Robertson and European Union security chief Javier Solana arrived here yesterday to offer support for the Macedonian government's peace plan.
"The key thing now is to translate a plan on paper into peace in place," Mr. Robertson said. "What we are here to do is to encourage this process, the process of dialog [and] reforms."
As the two men met with government leaders, ethnic Albanian rebels called for "intervention of NATO forces in the whole territory of Macedonia, as a guarantee for ... reaching a lasting peace." They also demanded inclusion in the peace negotiations and a full amnesty for rebels.
Their statement was seen as a big step forward, because it offers a point from which to begin negotiations. The main ethnic Slav and Albanian political parties agreed earlier this week to the government's plan.
Robertson and Solana, while supporting the government's plan, are also encouraging Macedonia's President Boris Trajkovski to flesh it out. Still in blueprint form, it calls for a cease-fire and partial amnesty for rebels who disarm voluntarily, and better inclusion of Macedonia's sizable ethnic-Albanian minority in government sectors.
Violence erupted in Macedonia in February, when ethnic Albanian guerrillas began fighting from the hills for broader rights. Macedonian authorities have led several offensives to dislodge the rebels from the strongholds, contending they are separatists bent on carving up the country.
After Solana's and Robertson's visit, leaders of Macedonia's divided government began two-day negotiations to find a way out of the crisis that threatens to drag Macedonia into a full-blown civil war and further regional destabilization.
"These negotiations are a last chance to achieve a lasting peace," says Stevo Pendarovski, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry.
Albanians - both rebels and political leaders - are demanding constitutional recognition of Albanian citizens and for Albanian to be recognized as an official second language in state schools and institutions, as well as a general amnesty for rebel fighters.
Macedonian Slavs have rejected the constitutional changes, but are being pressured toward compromise by the international community, according to a government adviser who wished to remain anonymous.
"One possible compromise is to use a phrase such as 'citizens of Macedonia' instead of referring to Macedonians and Albanians," says the adviser.
As diplomats pressure Macedonia's government toward political compromise, Western leaders used President Bush's first visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday to stress the need for greater NATO involvement.
"NATO must play a more visible and active role in helping the Macedonian government counter the insurgency there," Mr. Bush told leaders of the alliance at an informal summit.
In Washington, senators were even more forceful.
"I am concerned that we are falling into the timeworn tendency of doing too little until it is too late," said Sen. Joseph Biden, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. "In 1991, it was Croatia. In 1992, it was Bosnia. In 1998, it was Kosovo. And now, in 2001, it is Macedonia. Like it or not, the reality is that only the US has the necessary military and political credibility with all ethnic groups to successfully manage and resolve crises in the Balkans."
The State Department said earlier this week that with their takeover of a village five miles from the capital, Albanian rebels have threatened NATO supply routes to Kosovo, where 36,000 peacekeepers are stationed.
The peace plan proposed last Friday by Mr. Trajkovski includes acceptance of an offer from NATO secretary-general George Robertson to deploy international troops to disarm the rebels.
Exactly what role NATO peacekeepers might play remains unclear. Rebels who disbanded in Serbia recently insisted on turning in their weapons to peacekeepers instead of to Serb security forces.
"We do not trust Macedonia security forces who have abused our rights, and of course we want to see international troops here," says Deputy Prime Minister Xhefdet Nasufi, an Albanian.
Some 3,000 peacekeepers, including 700 Americans, are already stationed near Skopje as logistical support to peacekeepers in Kosovo.
Failure to achieve an agreement soon could have disastrous consequences, all sides warn. A cease-fire, now in its fourth day, is fragile and sporadic. Fire-fights have been reported in numerous locations.
Rebels presently control a number of villages in the north, outside of Kumanovo, areas near Tetovo in the west, and Aracinovo, five miles from the capital, Skopje.
Officials from UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, say they have registered about 42,000 refugees from Macedonia. That figure includes 22,000 people in the past six days. they say.
Though analysts doubt that rebels have the firepower to shell Skopje from Aracinovo, as they've threatened, the rebels have already proved they can carry on fights on a number of fronts.
Trajkovski on Wednesday put into action an "operative plan" to defend key state institutions in Skopje. But yesterday, he said the government will prolong the suspension of military operations against ethnic Albanian rebels in order to give the political parties time to find a peaceful solution to the crisis.
Macedonia's peace plan resembles a plan used recently in southern Serbia, which led to the disarmament of Albanian rebels there.
Though the plan worked in Serbia, the circumstances in Macedonia are more complex. Rebels here, for example, control much more territory and have more demands.
Material from the wire services was used in this report.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor