NATO is in the midst of deploying 3,500 troops in Macedonia to collect weapons from Albanian rebels following yesterday's decision to proceed with "Operation Essential Harvest." As the deployment proceeds, debate is erupting in Skopje over how many weapons the insurgents actually have.
Prague, 23 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- NATO's collection of arms from ethnic Albanian insurgents is expected to begin next week. But just how many arms it will gather and destroy in "Operation Essential Harvest" remains far from clear.
The ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army, or UCK, has pledged to surrender 2,000 weapons. The Macedonian Defense Ministry believes the UCK has 8,000 weapons. But some in the Interior Ministry estimate the figure is more than 10 times as much -- 85,000 weapons.
Ministry officials said yesterday that the UCK has 9,000 automatic rifles and 2,000 semi-automatic rifles of Chinese and Yugoslav origin; 20,000 hand grenades and the same number of mines and artillery shells; as well as 8,000 pistols and hundreds of sniper rifles, anti-aircraft and anti-tank machine guns, grenade launchers, rockets and anti-aircraft cannons.
Arms smuggling has been a major activity in western Macedonia for the past decade, especially in the four and a half years since Albania was convulsed by widespread anarchy that included numerous raids on military weapons storage sites.
However, not even Macedonia's interior minister, Ljube Boskovski, seems to believe the estimate put forward by members of his staff:
"You see, there has been speculation. I don't want to be a part of this speculation that has been going around lately about the number [of weapons], ranging from 2,000 to 8,000, or whatever suffices. The most important thing is that diplomats are discussing the symbolism of this [handover], that essentially the collection of arms is beginning and that we are restoring peace to the Republic of Macedonia."
The UCK is dismissing the Interior Ministry estimates as false and worthless. The rebel group says it will provide its own weapons estimates to NATO once the disarmament process starts.
"Gjini," a UCK commander in the Tetovo region, spoke with RFE/RL's Albanian unit last night. He declined to discuss the number of weapons to be handed over to NATO, on the grounds that the figure is known only by what he called "UCK experts." But he indicated that some insurgents will be withdrawing from Macedonia and taking their weapons with them:
"Preparations are continuing, and some [UCK] units are ready to hand over weapons, while some are preparing to withdraw [with their weapons]."
The Macedonian authorities, the insurgents and NATO will have to agree on a weapons figure, since NATO is dividing the weapons-gathering process into three consecutive 10-day periods, with one-third of the weapons to be collected in each period at collection depots that are still to be determined.
The commander of the NATO task force in Macedonia, Major General Gunner Lange, has declined to respond to the figures put forward by the Macedonian Interior Ministry. But he noted at a news conference in Skopje yesterday that NATO peacekeepers in Kosovo, along the UN-administered province's border with Macedonia, have intercepted more than 1,000 anti-tank weapons, almost 1,500 grenades and mines, and hundreds of rifles, rockets, and other support weapons this year. In addition, 530 people have been detained.
NATO officials in Kosovo estimate they have confiscated only about 15 percent of the arms being smuggled into Macedonia.
General Lange said that numbers are important. But he added: "We are in a region where they can re-arm, can find new weapons, so it is a lot more important that the trust and confidence and the implementation of the political agreement give them no wish to re-arm and start fighting again."
Speaking in Brussels yesterday, NATO Secretary-General George Robertson declined to say how many weapons the alliance hopes to gather. But he insisted the 30-day deadline is realistic:
"I am confident that the time that has been laid down has been thought through. This is not some figure spirited out of thin air. It is an estimate based on the military experience of those who have been there and those who have put forward the outline plan, so I am confident that we can achieve that target within the time limit."
Robertson was asked about the 21 August attack on a Macedonian Orthodox church at Lesok, originally dating from the mid-14th century and rebuilt in 1927. He said the attack may have been "a message to the NATO troops" by those who don't want a peaceful settlement.
The UCK has denied shelling the church in Lesok. But the UCK's chief of staff, General Gezim Ostreni, noted in an interview today with Macedonia's private Albanian language daily "Fakti" that Macedonian forces have destroyed 46 mosques during the fighting of the past six months. Ostreni branded this as "cultural genocide" and "Talibanism."