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Macedonian hostages are released

NATO troops monitor a fragile peace in Macedonia  

SKOPJE, Macedonia -- Five Macedonians, whose kidnapping sparked fears of renewed ethnic conflict ahead of elections, have been released by their captors near Skopje.

The five, who were abducted from a bus in western Macedonia by ethnic Albanian gunmen late on Thursday, were released early Saturday following a three-day standoff, an Interior Ministry spokesman said.

"The hostages have been released unharmed and in good health," a police spokesman told Reuters, although one of the captives is believed to have been beaten by the captors.

Diplomatic officials said the release had been secured by negotiation.

Armoured cars full of special forces units in battle fatigues had earlier sealed off Macedonia's western Tetovo valley where the hostages were held in scenes reminiscent of the eve of last year's conflict with ethnic Albanian guerrillas. (Full story)

The fighting last year almost sparked all-out ethnic civil war before a Western-brokered peace pact secured the surrender of guerrilla weapons to a NATO peacekeeping force.

In-depth: Macedonia - hurdles to peace 

The kidnappings, which followed the murder on Monday of two Macedonian policemen in the mainly ethnic Albanian town of Gostivar, threatened a resurgence of violence ahead of elections set for September 15.

The gunmen had first taken eight hostages near Gostivar, 60 kilometres (40 miles) west of Skopje, but later released three.

They had demanded the release of three ethnic Albanians arrested earlier in the week on charges of killing two Macedonian police officers.

Ministry spokesman Voislav Zafirovski told The Associated Press: "There was no police action in the (northwestern) Tetovo area where the hostages were taken. The kidnappers managed to get away."

Police had been deployed to the area in force, and he declined to say how the kidnappers managed to escape. He said police were investigating.

Zafirovski said that officials from the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the U.S. Embassy in Skopje and the International Red Cross had been involved in negotiations with the kidnappers.

Thousands of weapons were handed in after last year's Western-brokered deal
Thousands of weapons were handed in after last year's Western-brokered deal  

On Friday, NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson and EU foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, condemned the kidnapping of the Macedonian Slavs.

Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski accused unspecified forces of impeding the election process, warning that "such a tendency must be prevented by all legal and legitimate means."

But four top ethnic Albanian leaders called on the authorities in a joint statement to immediately stop the deployment of security forces into (ethnic Albanian) villages and urged ethnic Albanians to remain calm.

In separate incidents in the area, two ethnic Albanians were shot dead Friday by police and one was injured.

The Macedonian conflict ended in August 2001 with a Western-brokered peace deal.

As part of the agreement, the ethnic Albanian militants surrendered their weapons to NATO troops and disbanded. A number of splinter groups remain, however.




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