Brussels, 22 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- NATO's Secretary-General Lord George Robertson said today the alliance's decision to send a 3,500-man mission to Macedonia was "the right decision."
Speaking in Brussels at a news conference shortly after NATO announced the launching of "Operation Essential Harvest" to collect weapons voluntarily surrendered by Macedonia's ethnic Albanian rebels, Robertson said without NATO's help Macedonia would face a bloody civil war.
"The decision made today by this alliance is the right one, but it has also been a difficult one. There are risks involved. We recognize that. But members of the alliance have, nevertheless, agreed to send their troops because they know that the risks of not sending them are far greater."
Robertson said NATO would start deploying the force in Macedonia this afternoon, but that it would take until next week before they can start collecting and destroying weapons from the rebels.
Diplomatic sources in various NATO member countries have indicated that it would take at least 48 hours for the main body of the 3,500-man mission to reach Macedonia. They say the full deployment of NATO forces could take up to 14 days -- which is when the 30-day period will officially start.
NATO's secretary-general warned both Macedonia's government and the ethnic Albanian rebels today, however, that NATO sees itself as playing a supplementary role. Robertson said it was up to both parties themselves to deliver on the reconciliation commitments undertaken earlier this month.
"This decision, however, is not the end of the road. It is one part of a process which will see the implementation of the historic agreement signed by the leaders of the political parties on the 13th of August. The conclusion of the process, the ratification of the proposed constitutional changes, is now in the hands of the people of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and of their leaders."
Under the accord, Macedonia's parliament was given 45 days to ratify the agreed constitutional changes guaranteeing the country's ethnic Albanians greater autonomy. NATO officials privately admit that whether this deadline -- 27 September -- is respected is more significant than the immediate success of the NATO mission.
According to Robertson, Macedonia's Albanian rebels have given NATO written assurances of their intention to disarm and disband under the supervision of NATO troops.
NATO has made it clear its mission in Macedonia will not perform a peacekeeping or peace-enforcing role familiar from Bosnia and Kosovo. Although the troops are authorized to use force if attacked, Robertson said they would only collect and destroy weapons voluntarily handed over to them by rebels, and would not engage in any searching or "detective work." He refused to elaborate on how many weapons NATO expects to collect, saying only that the final tally had to be "realistic" both in terms of quantity and quality.
Macedonia's government has said the rebels may possess up to 60,000 weapons, while the rebels themselves have put the figure much lower.
Robertson said he expected the 30-day timeframe to be sufficient to disarm the rebels. He said the deadline had been thoroughly considered, but admitted that it would be "very difficult" to extend.