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Eight Captives, Including American Released From Macedonian Prison

By Alissa J. Rubin

Skopje, Macedonia

Ethnic Albanian guerrillas released a U.S. man Sunday evening who also holds Macedonian citizenship, along with seven ethnic Macedonians they had also held captive.

The release came barely 12 hours after a popular country restaurant frequented by ethnic Macedonians was blown up and an ethnic Macedonian guard and a bartender were killed in the blast.

Several Western sources said they suspected the explosion was set by the guerrillas, who call themselves the National Liberation Army, but a spokesman denied responsibility.

Macedonia has been on the verge of civil war since February, when ethnic Albanian guerrillas took up arms to fight for more rights for the country’s sizable ethnic Albanian minority. Out of 2 million people, at least 25 percent are ethnic Albanian.

In recent weeks, European and U.S. mediators have been working with the country’s political parties -- two ethnic Macedonian and two ethnic Albanian -- on a peace plan. In an operation that will proceed parallel to the enactment of the plan by parliament, NATO has agreed to enter the country to disarm the rebels. But that process has become steadily more controversial.

Both the release of the hostages and the restaurant explosion came on the eve of NATO’s first scheduled collection of weapons from the NLA -- an operation that is already coming in for sharp criticism.

The Macedonian American hostage released Sunday, Vojislav Mihajlovic, was captured seven or eight weeks ago near the village of Radusa on the border with Kosovo, the majority Albanian province of Yugoslavia. Late Sunday evening, he was receiving medical care in Skopje, the capital.

Mihajlovic, who was seized along with two ethnic Macedonians, is between 45 and 50, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

“He looks as if he is in reasonable health, given his ordeal,” said Red Cross official Amanda Williamson.

U.S. Embassy officials said they had been working on his release for some time but that they had not wanted to publicize their efforts. The embassy had come close to winning his release once, but that attempt fell through.

“We are pleased that this U.S. citizen was released,” said Peter Becskehazy, an embassy spokesman.

The embassy gave no details of Mihajlovic’s capture, imprisonment or release, citing privacy concerns.

The number of ethnic Macedonians who are thought to be held hostage by the NLA varies, but until the eight were released Sunday, there were at least 25, according to Macedonian and international humanitarian groups.