Macedonia gets unity government - guerrillas shrug

Macedonia gets unity government - guerrillas shrug

Macedonia on Monday marshals its first national unity government of Slav and ethnic Albanian parties in a bid to subdue an Albanian guerrilla uprising that could plunge the country into civil war.

Approved by 102-to-1 in a national assembly vote late on Sunday night, the grand coalition has already been dismissed by guerrillas who say that only armed struggle can win genuine equal rights for the one-third Albanian minority.

They vow to fight on until invited to negotiate.

The former Yugoslav republic, which became independent 10 years ago, has had two Slav-Albanian coalitions. But this is the first team to include all four main parties.

Ljubco Georgievski remains prime minister. The new cabinet was immediately sworn in before President Boris Trajkovski and relieved Western ambassadors in the gallery.

Diplomatic representatives of the European Union and the United States worked to the last to broker the deal, persuading the country's number two Albanian party not to let concern about the army's handling of the guerrilla crisis block an accord.

"We are aware of the risk we are taking by entering this coalition government in the interests of peace," Ismet Ramadani of the Albanian Party of Democratic Prosperity (PDP) told the assembly.

"Our main motive in joining is our desire to achieve safety and security for the country, but only through peace and dialogue, not by killing and being killed," he said.

Ratification earlier appeared on a knife edge when Georgievski angered the PDP with what Ramadani called a "militant" speech vowing to crush ethnic Albanian rebels.

The party again conferred with Western diplomats before returning to the assembly to announce its acceptance.

As parliament began Sunday's session, government forces opened fire with Soviet-built tanks on the rebel-held village of Slupcane northeast of the capital Skopje, ending a day of quiet that had followed a blitz on Saturday.

BROAD-BASED GOVERNMENT TO COUNTER INSURGENCYThe guerrillas, commanded by a Macedonian-born veteran of a decade of Yugoslav wars last active in neighbouring Kosovo, rejected army claims to have killed 30 of their number as lies.

The new all-party bloc returns the Slav socialists to power with key portfolios and gives both Macedonia's Albanian parties ministerial posts in the hope of averting civil war.

Georgievski said the new government's top priority was to defeat the insurgency, which has raised fears of a broader Balkan conflict dragging in Macedonia's neighbours.

Western and Macedonian Albanian leaders say stability can be restored only by ending discrimination against ethnic Albanians in employment, education and language rights. Diplomats say reform legislation must be enacted swiftly to cool the uprising.

"We are faced with well-trained forces coming from the other side of the border," Georgievski told deputies. "Parties should put aside individual interests and join together to defend the country.

"We have no alternative but to respond fiercely to these attacks. We will make the maximum political and military preparations possible to break the enemy."

In the battle zone around Kumanovo, 30 km (20 miles) from Skopje, a senior interior ministry commander said he believed troops could evict the rebels from their mountain hideouts within hours were it not for fear of civilian casualties.

Residents of a cluster of hamlets occupied by the National Liberation Army (NLA) rebels have been crammed into sandbagged basement shelters with dwindling supplies for days. The NLA denies holding them as human shields to prevent an army assault.

Despite battering the villages for the past 10 days, the Macedonian army has failed to advance any significant distance. The guerrillas say long-range shelling leaves them untouched.

"We haven't had a scratch," a spokesman called Commander Hoxha told Reuters by telephone from the conflict zone.

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