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Getting parties to talk is task No. 1 for EU envoy

A new European Union envoy arrived in Macedonia yesterday to help broker a political solution to the crisis there that is threatening to engulf the country in another Balkan war.

Installing himself in the capital, Skopje, for several months, Francois Leotard said he intended to "facilitate" negotiations between ethnic Slav and ethnic Albanian leaders in the coalition government. They have so far failed to agree on reforms to boost the minority Albanian community's rights, four months after ethnic Albanian guerrillas took up arms in that cause.

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Mr. Leotard's chances of success "are not bad," says Nicholas Whyte, Balkans analyst at the Centre for European Policy Studies, a Brussels-based think tank, so long as the fighting does not slip out of control.

Rebel guerrillas and Macedonian army and police forces have been sparring inconclusively in low-level combat that has so far caused few casualties.

Meanwhile, NATO officials have completed their operational plan for a 3,000-man force that would disarm the rebels in the wake of a political settlement. US troops with the NATO force in Macedonia have already been embroiled in the conflict. To end fighting and restore a cease-fire, they evacuated some 300 guerrillas and their weapons from a village outside Skopje last Monday.

Leotard has little leverage over Macedonian politicians other than offering them the prospect of closer economic ties with the European Union, and the hopes of prosperity they would bring.

Macedonia's leaders "are desperate for recognition as a real European state and not a Balkan throwback," says Mr. Whyte. An agreement making Macedonia an associate of the EU - signed in April but not yet ratified by EU members - "is an important carrot," he adds.

The EU also threatened this week to cut off $100 million in planned aid to Macedonia this year unless the government reaches a political end to the crisis.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor