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Hostages freed, but Macedonia remains on edge

Hundreds of Macedonian police officers converged on two villages in the Balkan country's ethnically tense northwest on Monday, attempting to prevent the escape of ethnic Albanian gunmen they said killed three police officers and took dozens of hostages.

Riding armored personnel carriers and jeeps, police fanned out around Semsovo and Trebos, where the three officers were killed and two others wounded Sunday during an attempt to rescue hostages seized by gunmen in retaliation for the arrest of their comrades.

The hostages were freed Monday after Western envoys helped mediate a deal. The violence was among the worst in Macedonia since an August peace accord ended six months of fighting between ethnic Albanian rebels and government forces.

Dozens of people died and thousands fled their homes in northwestern Macedonia before the Western-brokered accord was reached. The rebels handed in some 4,000 weapons under the agreement and said they disbanded the rebel National Liberation Army.

In return, the Macedonian-dominated Parliament is to approve constitutional reforms improving the status of the large ethnic Albanian minority. Those changes have been stalled amid bickering in the legislature.

Macedonians and ethnic Albanians have accused each other of jeopardizing the peace by acting in bad faith. President Boris Trajkovski's Cabinet issued a statement Monday saying the latest violence underlined the need for both sides to stick to their promises.

"The most important thing is to adopt the constitutional changes as soon as possible and not allow the further spreading of the armed conflict and violation of the cease-fire," the statement said.

Trouble began early Sunday when a large police force moved in to secure a large area where Macedonian officials say bodies of Macedonians slain by rebels during the fighting earlier this year are buried.

Twelve Macedonians are reported missing in the wake of the fighting, and a Western diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity said the massive operation was unnecessarily provocative to ethnic Albanians, the Associated Press reported.

The police arrested seven ethnic Albanians carrying assault rifles and hand grenades, the Interior Ministry said.

Other ethnic Albanian militants, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Associated Press that the men were beaten, and that the hostages were taken in retaliation.

In a statement released to the media Monday, a little-known group calling itself the Albanian National Army claimed responsibility for the police killings and charged that the government "is restarting its terror and sees war as the only response to the Albanian demands."

It urged ethnic Albanian politicians to pull out of the Macedonian government, an exodus that would scuttle the peace process.

Alarmed by the resurgence of violence, however, mainstream ethnic Albanian parties moved instead to drop their objections and return to discussions on the constitutional reforms.

A Parliament session to consider the reforms and the peace deal is set for today.

NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson, who was in Slovenia on Monday, urged all involved to show restraint. He said he spoke to Trajkovski and to the NATO commander in Macedonia earlier in the day, adding, "I believe the situation has stabilized."