NATO Council to decide on partial deployment to Macedonia

Wednesday, August 15th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) _ NATO leaders presented a proposal to their national governments for the partial deployment of a 3,500-member military mission to Macedonia, moving forward Wednesday with a plan the alliance hopes will pave the way for peace in the Balkan nation.

The alliance's ruling council set a 5 p.m. (11 a.m. EDT) deadline for any of NATO's 19-member governments to object to the plan. If they do not, the council will authorize deployment of the mission's headquarters, communications and other essential support elements _ about 400 personnel.

The 3,500-strong British-led force would collect and destroy arms and ammunition held by the rebels. The 30-day mission, dubbed Operation Essential Harvest, would include troops from the United States and 11 European nations.

One NATO official, speaking on condition he not be identified, said a decision to deploy partially did not imply a final decision on deployment of the entire task force.

NATO set four conditions for sending in troops: a political agreement between the parties, a NATO-Macedonia agreement setting out the legal basis for the deployment, an agreement with the rebels for turning in weapons, and a cease-fire.

The first three have been fulfilled. Despite the signing of the peace agreement on Monday, however, sporadic violence has continued.

The Macedonian Defense Ministry said Wednesday there was fighting overnight between the insurgents and government forces in the second-largest city of Tetovo and surrounding villages.

The ministry said ethnic Albanian rebels attacked Macedonian security forces deployed near the city's soccer stadium, and around Sara Mountain and other villages near Tetovo and in the Kumanovo area, north of Skopje. Government forces returned fire. There was no word on casualties.

NATO is concerned that if it deploys too early, allied troops could find themselves in a crossfire. If it waits to long to deploy, the political agreement could come apart.

NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson had been pressing the ambassadors to move quickly to keep up the momentum of the political agreement.

Once NATO gives the activation order, the first elements can be on their way almost immediately. Military officials have said the headquarters element of the deployment could be in Macedonia within 48 hours of the activation order.

Monday's peace deal, which came after six months of bloody conflict, gives ethnic Albanians a larger share of power in the police, parliament and education.

In Skopje, Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski said Wednesday he will ask Parliament to amend the constitution to give the ethnic Albanian minority more rights, the first formal step in implementing the peace deal and paving the way for NATO.

Parliament would ratify the amendments three days after NATO informs the government that ethnic Albanian rebels have been disarmed, state television reported.

Maj. Gen. Gunnar Lange of Denmark, a senior NATO representative in Skopje, said that once the mission is approved and a permanent-cease fire is established, the deployment will last about 10 days. ``Within 30 days, we expect to complete the mission,'' he said Wednesday.

``Our soldiers will not come here to enforce peace,'' Lange said. ``They will only come if the environment allows them to conduct their very specific mission of collecting weapons and ammunition that are voluntarily turned in.''

The most likely outcome of Wednesday's meeting in Brussels, diplomats said, is a proposal to deploy the NATO force on a fixed date.

On Tuesday, NATO reached deals with the Macedonian government and ethnic Albanians on the deployment of alliance soldiers and the disarming of rebels in this impoverished country.

The rebels officially declared they intend to hand in about 2,000 weapons, a figure NATO is trying to persuade the Macedonian government to accept.

NATO and ethnic Albanian officials said the insurgents pledged to hand in their weapons to the British-led force.

However, hopes for a permanent cease-fire were dampened by the recent killing of up to nine people in the village of Ljuboten on the outskirts of Skopje. Ethnic Albanians said the victims, all civilians, were summarily executed by the government troops; the government insisted they were rebels in disguise.