NATO authorizes deployment of 3,500 troops to Macedonia

Wednesday, August 22nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) _ NATO authorized the deployment of 3,500 allied troops to Macedonia, hoping the mission to collect and destroy rebel arms will nudge Macedonians and ethnic Albanians along the road to reconciliation.

An advance party of 400 troops has been in place since the weekend, following an earlier decision by NATO's ruling council. Wednesday's authorization means the main body of troops can be on the way within 48 hours. Full deployment is expected within 10 days to two weeks.

The United States will play a behind-the-scenes role, relying on troops already in Kosovo and Macedonia. Several hundred Americans will participate, focusing on limited logistical duties.

Once the entire force is in Macedonia, the clock will start ticking on NATO's self-imposed 30-day time limit for the mission.

``Today is an important day for NATO and an even more important one for the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,'' said NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson. ``We are taking an historic step forward also to provide stability and security in the whole Balkans region.''

He said mission commanders could begin picking up rebel weapons at collection sites scattered across rugged mountain territory as early as next week.

Macedonia's government welcomed NATO's decision on Wednesday and pledged its cooperation.

``We have big expectations from NATO's mission,'' said Stevo Pendarovski, an adviser to Macedonian President Boris Trajkovksi.

An ethnic Albanian rebel spokesman known as Besniku also cautiously welcomed the decision, ``provided that NATO will be evenhanded with both sides.''

``If not, we still have arms in our hands _ and more importantly, we have the will of the Albanian people to go until the end in order to gain their rights,'' he said.

The rebels took up arms six months ago, claiming they wanted more rights for the ethnic Albanian minority. NATO moves in under a peace accord signed last week by the country's ethnic Albanian and Macedonian leaders.

On Tuesday, the North Atlantic Council _ made up of ambassadors from NATO's 19 member nations _ authorized Gen. Joseph Ralston, supreme allied commander in Europe, to launch the full mission despite scattered cease-fire violations. They gave members until noon Wednesday to object. None did, and when the deadline passed the authorization was automatic.

``The decision made today by this alliance is the right one, but it's also a difficult one,'' Robertson said. ``There are risks involved. But members of the alliance have nevertheless agreed to send their troops because they know that the risks of not sending them are far greater.''

Ralston will carry out the deployment, to be led by Britain, with about 1,800 troops, and another 1,700 drawn from 10 other European nations and the United States.

Britain's Defense Ministry said up to 700 men from the 2nd Battalion Parachute Regiment would fly out ``as soon as possible.'' French officials said 150 French troops could be in Macedonia as early as Wednesday. Greece, which has pledged about 350 troops, said it will begin deployment on Thursday.

The Bush administration has made no secret of its desire to disengage from the Balkans, although it has promised not to make any dramatic troop reductions without consulting with its European allies. U.S. troops in Macedonia will likely play a behind-the-scenes role, such as monitoring unmanned reconnaissance flights, rather than collecting weapons

Roughly 9,000 Americans remain on patrol in Europe's most volatile region _ 500 in Macedonia, 5,000 in Kosovo and 3,500 in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Robertson said NATO has an explicit agreement in writing from the ethnic Albanian rebels that they will disarm.

``We must have confidence that those who have given their word will go ahead and do so,'' the secretary-general said, adding that the exact number of weapons to be collected has not yet been determined.

The Macedonian government claimed Wednesday that ethnic Albanian insurgents have an arsenal vastly greater than previously estimated, adding potential complications to NATO's arms-collection mission.

The Interior Ministry, which controls the police forces, said the rebels have 10 times more firepower than previously believed _ about 85,000 weapons, not counting individual rounds of ammunition. The rebels say they have only 2,000 weapons.

``The number of weapons is not something that I'm willing to go into at the moment,'' Robertson said. ``We are assessing the estimate that has been put forward by the ethnic Albanians. The total will have to be realistic. It will also have to be based on quantity and quality of the armaments.''

The NATO mission, known as Operation Essential Harvest, will deploy troops to several locations. Headquarters will be near Skopje. One battalion will be northwest of Skopje and others will be at Petrovec Airport, Kumanovo and Krivolak.

Several sites will be established for collecting weapons. Locations probably will change frequently. Most of the weapons will be transported to a central point, from which they will be taken to Greece and destroyed.

Although violence in the country has subsided, an explosion early Tuesday rocked Sveti Atanasi Orthodox church in the town of Lesok, just five from Tetovo, Macedonia's second-largest city.

On Wednesday, Macedonian security forces admitted they had destroyed a mosque in the village of Neprosteno over the weekend. Sources speaking on condition of anonymity said the rebels were using the building as a sniper nest.