In southern Serbia, ethnic Albanian guerillas told a NATO delegation Thursday that they were conditionally ready for talks on ending the bloodshed, while NATO representatives in Skopje urged the Macedonian government on Thursday not to use force against a gunmen occupying a village on the border with Kosovo.
"This must be solved by political means because solving it by other means may solve the short-term problem, but it can create larger problems for the inter-ethnic relations in your country," said Daniel Speckhard, deputy assistant to NATO Secretary General George Robertson, in Skopje.
"A military response is not the best mechanism to use and a political approach is much better," he said after talks between the NATO delegation and top Macedonian officials.
It was the first comment from the NATO team sent by Robertson following appeals by Macedonian officials for help in dealing with violence they say could destabilize the Balkan state and Europe.
Macedonia's government said on Wednesday it was ready to launch a military operation against what it says are ethnic Albanian guerrillas occupying the border village of Tanusevci, some 25 miles to the north of Skopje, but would prefer an internationally-backed peaceful solution.
On patrol in southern Kosovo. (AP)SIZE>
"The army completed deployment of reinforcements yesterday. It is positioned along the border to stop further penetration of the terrorists into the country," he said.
Macedonia, one-third of whose population are ethnic Albanians, borders Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, Serbia and the mainly Albanian Kosovo province. It is seen as vulnerable to any spillover of the recent violence in and around Kosovo.
Macedonia has complained that the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force in Kosovo does not do enough to seal the border on its side. KFOR has promised to shore up border controls.
"We have already taken further measures that include increasing patrols, reconnaissance, information gathering and presence along the other side of the border," said Speckhard.
The village of Debelde just across from Tanusevci on the Kosovo side is heavily patrolled by KFOR.
Tanusevci is near the Presevo Valley in southern Serbia, where ethnic Albanian rebels have clashed with Serb police in a three-mile-wide buffer zone adjoining Kosovo set up in 1999 to separate forces then led by Slobodan Milosevic from NATO-led troops in Kosovo.
Rebel conditions for meeting NATO officials in the buffer zone included internatonal mediation in the talks between Serbia and ethnic Albanian guerrillas.
The rebels also demanded that the ethnic Albanian negotiating team be headed by the guerrilla group. Five of the negotiating team's nine members should be guerrilla representatives with the others coming from ethnic Albanian parties in the region, said Sami Azemi, the guerrillas' senior commander.
The ethnic Albanian side also wants the demilitarization of the region, he said.
There was no immediate reaction from Serbian officials in nearby Bujanovac, just outside the zone, who were waiting for the NATO team's report on the talks in Konculj with the rebels.
Both the zone in southern Serbia and the tense area in northern Macedonia were reported quiet Thursday afternoon. The Macedonian Defense Ministry said, however, that firefights between army units and rebels in the village of Tanusevci lasted into the early morning hours Thursday.
Macedonian Defense Minister Ljuban Paunovski described the situation there as "tense, but under control." He suggested that his government was losing patience with the insurgents, saying authorities were considering "whether to issue an ultimatum" to them.
Though separated by borders, the conflicts appear similar - both sparked by insurgents in heavily ethnic Albanian areas in apparent hopes of joining the areas to an independent Kosovo.
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