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Macedonia: NATO Confirms Non-Military Role As Shaky Cease-Fire Continues

  • Jolyon Naegele

While a shaky cease-fire continues to hold in Macedonia, NATO leaders meeting in Brussels today confirmed that for the time being, the alliance is still choosing to pursue a diplomatic, rather than military, path to ensure peace in Macedonia. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports.

Prague, 13 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Despite growing tensions in Macedonia, officials at today's NATO summit in Brussels confirmed that the alliance would not intervene militarily. They urged Macedonian and ethnic Albanian leaders to continue to seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

NATO Secretary-General George Robertson, speaking at a press conference following today's meeting, called on Macedonia's political leaders to work together to implement Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski's peace plan:

"What we need now is a continued cease-fire and a continuation of the existing cease-fire, a recognition by the armed insurgents that the reform process that they claim that they're interested in can be achieved through democratic means, and an international community that stands full-square behind the territorial integrity of that country. So we're not considering any other options at the moment than the bilateral support that has been given, at present, and by encouraging a political process which is the only way to a sustainable peace in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia."

U.S. President George W. Bush has in the past balked at the idea of strengthening U.S. forces in Macedonia at a time when the U.S. is looking to reduce the size of its forces in Bosnia and Kosovo. Speaking today, Bush said that "most people believe there is still a political solution available before troops are committed:"

"The idea of committing troops within Macedonia was one that most [NATO member] nations were troubled over. They want to see if we cannot achieve a political settlement first."

Earlier in the day, some officials had raised the prospect of NATO intervention. French President Jacques Chirac said NATO members "should clearly demonstrate that we will not accept the start of a new cycle of violence and intolerance that will put the stability of the whole region in danger."

Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou also suggested that peacekeepers might be needed in Macedonia to act as a guarantee that a political solution would be pursued.

Robertson will pay a one-day visit to Macedonia tomorrow for talks with Trajkovski, Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski, and the ministers of foreign affairs, defense, and interior.

Robertson will also meet with the heads of the four main parties in Macedonia's coalition government. It is unclear whether Robertson's talks will be in Skopje or in the southern resort city of Ohrid, where at least two days of talks are due to open between Trajkovski and the coalition's party leaders.

In talks yesterday with Trajkovski, the leaders of the two main Albanian parties urged political dialogue. Arben Xhaferi, head of the Democratic Party of Albanians (PDSh), told Macedonian state TV that the cease-fire is "our only hope, because this conflict does not have a future and any prolongation would be superfluous."

But Xhaferi also noted that "matters won't end with the end of the fighting." What is needed, he said, "is a concrete agenda that will provide concrete solutions."

Imer Imeri, the head of the Party for Democratic Progress (PDD), said he expects the Ohrid "mini-summit" to have a positive outcome, though he noted that a lasting peace "depends on the political will of us all."

"The political parties say they are in favor of continuing political negotiations with President Boris Trajkovski. So we will have ongoing meetings, and we expect the talks will continue in the coming days to find a solution to the unresolved issues in the Republic of Macedonia."

For now, a fragile cease-fire continues in Macedonia on the Kumanovo/Lipkovo and Tetovo/Sar fronts. Macedonian army spokesman Blagoja Markovski says no military operations occurred last night or this morning.

However, Macedonian state TV reported gunfire and explosions near the Sar mountain villages of Sipkovica and Gajre yesterday evening. And state radio reports that security forces and rebels exchanged fire overnight near Nikustak, located some 20 km northeast of Skopje and just 10 km north of Aracinovo.

Civilians continue to flee the area. UN officials in Kosovo said last night that over 20,000 Albanians have fled Macedonia for Kosovo since Friday (8 June). UNHCR spokesman Kris Janowski in Geneva says most of the refugees that have arrived in Kosovo since 11 June have been from Skopje and its suburbs. Many of the refugees said they fear the fighting will spread to the capital.

President Trajkovski yesterday approved a defense plan for the city. And the same day, the army chief of staff, Jovan Andrevski, resigned his post to serve Trajkovski as a military adviser.

Defense Minister Vlado Buckovski announced last night the government had approved Trajkovski's peace plan, which foresees a combined army and police coordination body, as well as a limited amnesty for rebels who surrender their weapons: "The coordinating body for the police and the army provides a basis for civilian control of the armed forces." UCK fighters last Friday (8 June) seized Aracinovo and threatened to attack government buildings, the local refinery, and the international airport, which also serves as a military base for the Macedonian air force and as a logistics base for NATO-led KFOR peacekeepers. The threat to attack the airport not only caused some airlines to cancel their flights to Skopje. It also led NATO officials to consider beefing up the alliance's forces in Macedonia, even if it now appears that the UCK's 120mm mortars lack the range to reach the airport or the center of Skopje from Aracinovo.

At present, some 3,000 KFOR troops are based in Macedonia -- at Skopje airport, where most are U.S. and Italian -- at Tetovo, where the German KFOR contingent has a base -- and at Kumanovo, where U.S. and Belgian forces are based. The Belgians were reported last month to have to have redeployed most of their troops from Kumanovo to the Skopje airport.

Members of Xhaferi's PDSh party today buried a fellow party activist who was shot dead in a drive-by killing last night.

Police are searching for the two assailants who shot Naser Hani in the center of the town of Struga. Hani had headed the social welfare center in Struga, an ethnically mixed town at the northern end of Lake Ohrid.

The killing represents a further spread of the violence that has plagued Macedonia this year. Struga, though tenser than usual in recent weeks, had witnessed none of the clashes that have struck the Tetovo and Kumanovo regions in the north, or the anti-Albanian attacks made again last week by Macedonian youths in the southern towns of Bitola and Resen.

General Gezim Ostreni, the UCK chief of staff, yesterday expressed "regret" for the ambush Sunday (10 June) of a Macedonian police van in which nine policemen were wounded, two of them seriously, at Odri on the Tetovo-Jazince road.

General Ostreni, in a communique, termed the clash "accidental." He said a UCK reconnaissance unit had received word of the cease-fire while on patrol and then "accidentally ran into units of Macedonian government forces."