Skopje, 26 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- NATO soldiers who were sent to Macedonia in anticipation of keeping the peace in neighboring Kosovo now face the prospect of being drawn into a shooting war themselves.
When asked by our correspondent, NATO officials would not comment on how likely they perceive an attack from nearby Yugoslav forces to be. But many Macedonians are expressing the fear that NATO troops on their soil will be a magnet for retaliation since NATO is now engaged in air strikes against Yugoslavia.
NATO officials disparagingly reject use of terms like "red alert," but as soon as the air strikes began Tuesday night, alliance troops in Macedonia began taking defensive precautions.
NATO officials took journalists yesterday to see members of the British contingent at Petrovec military airport outside Skopje as they prepared their tanks for possible action. In a burst of premature optimism, some of the tanks had been painted with the letters 'KFOR' -- that was to have been the acronym for the Kosovo peacekeeping troops that were to move into the troubled southern Serbian province the second an internationally-mediated peace agreement was signed. Representatives of Kosovo's ethnic Albanian majority accepted it, but Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's refusal to do likewise sparked NATO's air raids.
The first NATO troops -- called an extraction force -- came to Macedonia in mid-December with the mission of helping to withdraw unarmed OSCE observers from Kosovo if they came under fire. In fact, all 1,380 OSCE observers left Kosovo on their own and without incident last weekend.
In the meantime, the number of NATO soldiers in Macedonia rose to 10,000 in anticipation of a Kosovo peacekeeping mission. Further complicating matters was the unexpected and abrupt closure of a UN preventive mission established in Macedonia several years ago in an effort to keep war from spilling over from other parts of the former Yugoslavia. China recently used its UN Security Council veto to end the UN mission, expressing displeasure with Macedonia's decision to establish diplomatic relations with Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province.
But where the UN was widely respected by the Macedonian people, who felt UN troops were genuinely protecting them, their feelings toward NATO are ambivalent and rapidly turning negative.
From NATO's top general down to its spokesman in Skopje, the alliance has gone out of its way to reassure Macedonians that NATO will launch no offensive action from its territory.
However, Macedonians are alarmed at comments coming out of Belgrade, where various officials have claimed that many of the missiles that have hit Yugoslavia were launched from Macedonia. Although the claim has been denied by NATO, Macedonians see it as Yugoslavia's making advance justification for an attack on NATO troops in Macedonia and perhaps on purely Macedonian targets as well.
It's a prospect that doesn't daunt the British soldiers of the grandly named King's Own Royal Border Regiment, guarding the Petrovec military airport. In an observation post on top of an airplane hangar camouflaged to look like a hill, Private John Gow, 21, who came here three months ago as part of the extraction force, says he is not disturbed by the idea of having to defend against possible Yugoslav attacks.
"We came here as an extraction force and in a peacekeeping role so we have trained for the worst case scenarios. Whatever happens we are trained to deal with it."
Corporal Darrel Szymanski, 24, a mortar-fire controller at the same observation post, says he doubts the Yugoslavs would attack the well-armed NATO troops.
"But, if that's the case, we'll just be defending ourselves. It goes back to the peacekeeping role. That's the way I see it."
NATO gives nearly daily assurances that it will protect Macedonia in case of any attack. But these pledges serve only to emphasize the NATO troop's potential as a lightening rod for Serbian aggression.
One young Skopje man summed up the feelings of many when he said the spread of war to his country is only logical. He explained: "NATO hits the Serbs and when the Serbs look around for a target the first one they see is the NATO troops in Macedonia. If we didn't have NATO troops and all their weapons here, we would not have any problems."
NATO officials in Skopje are holding daily press briefings aimed mainly at calming the local population, a message echoed by Macedonian President Kiro Gligorov, Prime Minister Ljubco Georgijevski, and the defense and interior ministers.
NATO continues to emphasize that it will protect not just its own troops but Macedonians as well. A spokesman for the British troops, Captain Wayne Hennessy-Barrett:
"An attack by anybody on Macedonia would face extremely serious consequences."