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Breaking News

Macedonia Conflict: Rebels Declare Unilateral Cease-fire

Aired March 21, 2001 - 1:46 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: The Macedonian military to the warring Albanian rebels in Macedonia: Lay down your arms or face a full-scale offensive. Well, the rebels have now responded to that ultimatum.

And we have Chris Burns with us from Skopje, Macedonia -- Chris, what is the answer?

CHRIS BURNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Lou, at this point, the rebels have made an announcement of a unilateral cease-fire, calling for dialogue. They say this cease-fire is aimed at opening the dialogue. It is an open-ended cease-fire unless the government starts to fire upon rebels, at which time they say they will start firing back twice as hard they had before.

This message from a man named Ali Ahmeti, who is the -- considered the political leader of the National Liberation Army, the NLA, that has been fighting against Macedonian forces in the past few months, and especially in the past week, around the hills of Tetovo, around Tetovo. That is a mainly ethnic Albanian city in Macedonia.

And what was feared was that perhaps this could break out into another Balkan war in this country because of the fear that it could spread to the general population. At this point, we are looking at a government ultimatum that is ticking down to midnight tonight. The government has promised to strike back at the rebels again beginning after midnight if the rebels do not accept the government demands for them to lay down their arms.

However, government officials have indicated that if the rebels show any sign of pulling back at all, that they will not fire at them. And it looks like perhaps both sides are looking for a face-saving way to back off -- Lou.

WATERS: Now, Chris, just so we can better understand who these rebels are, these are the same folks -- the National Liberation Army, I believe it's called -- who were fighting Serb troops in support of the NATO war in Kosovo, are they not?

BURNS: Well, that is -- that, actually, some of the members of the NLA came from the KLA, the Kosovo Liberation Army, that fought against Serb troops in Kosovo two years ago. Some elements of these are also fighting again Serb troops in southern Serbia. That is on the Yugoslav side -- a number of various rebellions going in the region that had believed to have been set by former KLA fighters. At the same time, Albanians here in Macedonia who are demanding more rights say that some of these fighters are home grown. They're actually young people here who are angry that there has not been enough reform in the country for the Albanians, who make up more than a quarter of the population here. So that has been a gripe. And then some of the rebels do come from this area -- Lou.

WATERS: Is there a mechanism in Macedonia for setting up these talks? Will the Albanians be anxious about getting these talks under way?

BURNS: Well, that is -- the question is: How would the talks happen? And, so far, the government has rejected any idea of talking directly with the rebels. But there could be some sort -- there has been dialogue up to now between Albanian parties and the governments. Many Albanians say that dialogue has not gone far and fast enough, and that is why that has fed this rebellion.

What is hoped is that both sides can dialogue further now and perhaps reach more reform. Hard, concrete measures such as perhaps more education for Albanians, more opportunity, perhaps even more bank loans for Albanians: That has been the gripe of a lot of Albanians here.

So the government is hoping -- and officials among the Albanian parties are hoping that maybe they can talk this out and avoid what would become the fifth Balkan war in the Yugoslav region ever since Yugoslavia starting breaking up 10 years ago -- Lou.

WATERS: All right, Chris Burns keeping watch today from Skopje, Macedonia, a beautiful part of the world, with continuing ugly ethnic violence.

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