NATO advance forces prepare for rebel arms-collection mission

Saturday, August 18th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) _ A special NATO advance team started its mission in Macedonia on Saturday, laying the groundwork for the arrival of several thousand troops charged with collecting weapons from ethnic Albanian rebels.

Isolated incidents overnight marred a tenuous cease-fire, but the situation overall was quiet. The most serious incident was a relatively minor attack on a Macedonian police position near the country's second-largest city, Tetovo, where two rocket-propelled grenades landed close to the site.

Defense officials also reported that they arrested a group of rebels crossing into the country from Albania, but that could not be independently confirmed.

Macedonian authorities shut down the main border crossing between Kosovo and Macedonia until further notice, Simon Haselock, a spokesman for the United Nations in Kosovo, said Saturday. No official reason was given for the closure, but a Macedonian police source speaking on condition of anonymity said insurgents were spotted at around 3 a.m. near the crossing, prompting the closure.

Civilians later blockaded the main road to the border in the town of Stenkovac, stretching out concertina wire and piling sand on the highway to stop NATO-led peacekeepers from traveling back and forth to Kosovo.

Many Macedonians blame NATO for their troubles, in part because the alliance failed to choke off weapons and supplies from Kosovo that are widely believed to be supporting rebel forces.

British transport planes flying at about two-hour intervals ferried the first contingent of soldiers into this tiny Balkan country to study the military situation on the ground and complete plans for the British-led Operation Essential Harvest. About 350 soldiers are set to arrive this weekend.

The first troops arrived Friday, and included French forces, 40 members of Britain's 16 Air Assault Brigade and 120 soldiers from the Czech Republic sent to protect the advance party.

The alliance, meanwhile, announced plans to dispatch the supreme allied commander in Europe, Gen. Joseph Ralston, on Monday to take part in the security assessment. NATO said it will decide next week whether to send in the rest of the 3,500 troops envisioned for the overall mission.

``We can only do our job with the full commitment and support of everybody in Macedonia,'' said Brig. Barney White-Spunner, the 16 Air Assault Brigade's commander. ``We are not here on a disarmament mission. We are not here on a peacekeeping mission.''

NATO has said a lasting cease-fire must be in place before its troops can deploy to collect weapons from the ethnic Albanian rebel National Liberation Army.

Macedonian government spokesman Antonio Milososki said Friday that he doubted NATO could succeed without forcing the rebels to hand in guns, saying NATO's experience in Kosovo shows ``it is impossible without using force to succeed in collecting weapons.''

The troops are likely to face an icy reception from Macedonians and a hero's welcome from minority ethnic Albanians, underscoring the deep divisions in the troubled Balkan nation after six bitter months of conflict.

Macedonians like Dragica Vojnovska, whose 51-year-old son remains missing after being kidnapped last month, aren't hoping for much.

``NATO isn't going to help us,'' she said Friday, cupping her hand over her eyes and struggling to hold back tears. ``They're only helping the Albanians.''

The insurgents took up arms in February, saying they were fighting for greater rights for ethnic Albanians, who account for about a third of Macedonia's 2 million people.

Ethnic Albanians see NATO as nothing less than their saviors _ and seem thrilled that the alliance is coming to town.

In Skopje's old market, Mustafa Arifi, 26, sat with his uncle in the cool shadow of the local mosque and gossiped about the deployment. Not only does he want NATO troops to come, he wants them to stay far longer than the 30 days envisioned by the alliance.

``I know the big powers are on our side,'' he said with certainty. ``I would love for them to be here for 20 years.''