Endgame for EU, NATO in Macedonia?

The EU wants NATO to stay in Macedonia after its mandate expires late this month.

In the remote mountain village of Radusa in western Macedonia, a T-55 tank bearing the black eagle insignia of the ethnic-Albanian National Liberation Army (NLA) rumbles across the village green. Children look on in awe, as rebel soldiers fire semiautomatic rifles into the air in celebration.

"We won, so we are disarming," says one uniformed rebel, cradling a Kalashnikov. "As for the uniforms, we're keeping them as souvenirs. We might need them again. If the Macedonian police try to enter our villages, we will take up arms again so fast they won't know what hit them."

International observers and local residents alike worry that, with such sentiment, the armed conflict could resume with unprecedented ferocity when the 4,500 NATO troops - who are now helping to disarm the rebels - pull out at the end of the month.

NATO is adamant that its mission here remain limited to 30 days. And it has so far rejected requests to stay in Macedonia after Sept. 27, when its mandate expires.

The European Union is calling for a NATO-led security force for civilian monitors to replace the current mission. Despite EU threats to withdraw aid from Macedonia, the government rejects the proposal for another armed force, saying its own security forces will handle things.

Western diplomats have called on the Vienna-based Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to double its 26-member monitoring team in Macedonia, but the OSCE is reluctant to commit without a force to protect its civilian personnel. To complicate matters, the Macedonian government does not support a continued foreign presence.

Western officials hope a peace plan currently before the Macedonian Parliament will leave ethnic Albanians no reason to fight. The agreement, which many Macedonians see as a humiliation imposed by "terrorists" and heavy-handed Westerners, would grant some constitutional adjustments, language rights, and representation in the Macedonian police force to the ethnic-Albanian minority. In return, according to the agreement, the NLA should disarm and disband.

The US Central Intelligence Agency has warned the peace plan could collapse after NATO withdraws.

One problem is that the ethnic-Albanian rebels control a seventh of the country. NLA commanders say Macedonian security forces will not be allowed back into the area until the police are reformed - a process that could take months or even years. But Macedonian Interior Minister Lubo Boskovski says he plans to move his forces in anyway.

The NATO mission, code-named Essential Harvest, should collect 3,300 weapons from the NLA - "no more, no less," according to NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson.

The rebels insist that number represents their full arsenal, despite widespread skepticism among weapons experts. Macedonian hard-liners in government claim the NLA has about 85,000 weapons. Privately, some Western officials estimate 20,000.

Despite sporadic shelling a few miles to the south, 600 NLA fighters lined up to hand in weapons at a collection point set up by NATO's Taskforce Harvest near Radusa on Friday.

Commander Msusi of the NLA, a soft-spoken former gym teacher, surveys the decommissioning, flanked by heavily-armed fighters. "I don't believe NATO will leave. If they do, the war will start again. We have very good, and we can re-arm in a matter of days."

As NATO soldiers moved into northern Macedonia yesterday to collect more weapons, some said the NLA is giving up mainly outdated and nonfunctional weapons, as the Kosovo Liberation Army did in 1999. Observers say some 70 percent of the arms are obsolete.

"We have information that they have some of the most sophisticated, modern American weaponry," says Milan Stavrev, head of Macedonia's parliamentary delegation to NATO. "They have weapons designed for urban warfare and insurgency, but they are not turning in any of those."

Boskovski, a notorious hard-liner and currently the most popular Macedonian politician, has repeatedly stated that he will send in heavily armed forces to "clean up the terrorists" in the areas near Tetovo and Kumanovo. Support for his stance appears to be growing, both in the public and in government.

"We have no illusions that the NLA is giving up all or even a significant portion of its weapons," says Tihomir Ilievski, a Macedonian diplomat who negotiated the current cease-fire. "And when NATO leaves, we have other ways of finishing the job. Our police forces will move in and secure the area, and the Albanian terrorists there will have to face justice."

The rebels do not appear concerned about this threat. "We already know Macedonians are not to be trusted," Mr. Msusi says. "We know how to organize a resistance and we can do it again at any moment. The Macedonian forces can never defeat us."

Weapons are cheap and easily available in this part of the Balkans. Even if the NLA and the Macedonian security forces adhere to their cease-fire, splinter groups on both sides may not.

One group, Albanian National Army, is gaining notoriety after issuing a statement that it "will not stop the war or recognize any political agreement." The ANA, estimated at 500 to 600 fighters, demands that western Macedonia and Kosovo, as well as parts of Montenegro and Greece join Albania.

Ethnic Macedonian paramilitaries appeared in earnest when the Interior Ministry armed 8,000 civilian reservists in May. Now, armed civilians wearing bandanas often accompany the Macedonian police.

"There is a very real threat that the war will continue," one American official in Skopje said. "We should not forget that NATO needs Macedonia more than Macedonia needs NATO. This is a very strategic location."

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