With just two weeks remaining before NATO's weapons collecting mission in Macedonia is due to end, Western powers are seeking a way for an international military force to keep the situation in the country stable. EU ministers have backed the idea of a NATO-led force that operates under a UN mandate. But both Skopje and Washington have expressed reservations about a new or extended NATO mission.
Prague, 11 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- NATO's mission to collect weapons from ethnic Albanian militants in Macedonia is at the midway point, and the alliance is expressing confidence that Operation Essential Harvest will reach its goal of gathering 3,300 weapons from the rebels by the time NATO's mandate expires on 26 September.
But European leaders are warning that the sudden withdrawal of the 4,500-strong NATO force at the end of this month could destabilize the situation in Macedonia and lead to renewed violence between the militants and government forces.
So far there is no clear indication of how the stabilizing presence of NATO troops will be replaced once their weapons collecting mission is complete.
Unarmed experts from the EU and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) are being sent into Macedonia to monitor the implementation of the Western-brokered peace accords signed last month at the resort town of Ohrid.
But correspondents report that tensions between the ethnic Albanian and Macedonian communities remain high. U.S. envoy James Pardew and EU foreign ministers have warned that the security situation is fragile and that the monitors will need protection from foreign troops.
On Sunday, EU foreign ministers agreed on the need for a new NATO-led security force in Macedonia to protect the monitors.
The proposal was raised by German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who called for the multinational force to work under a United Nations mandate. Fischer also suggested that the force should include non-NATO countries like Russia, Ukraine, Sweden, and Finland.
But the EU ministers cannot approve such a plan unless the Macedonian government first requests a new military mission. There also are doubts about whether the UN Security Council approval can be obtained before 26 September.
Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski has ruled out an extension of NATO's current mandate. And Antonio Milososki, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski's government, told RFE/RL that Skopje will not agree to an ongoing international military presence that is comprised of only NATO troops.
"The government supports the position of President [Boris] Trajkovski, who believes it is not necessary for NATO to have another mandate in Macedonia to support the peace process because the kind of peace provided by NATO will be a false peace."
Milososki says Skopje would not oppose the presence of an international force to secure Macedonia's borders with Albania and Kosovo, on the condition that the troops operate under a mandate from the United Nations Security Council.
But he told RFE/RL that Macedonian officials want further talks with Western powers in order to clarify what is perceived in Skopje as a change of position by NATO countries.
"We are very surprised because some NATO countries have inconsistent political positions [on the Ohrid accords]. Just one month ago, they tried to broker a peace deal at Ohrid that would guarantee the peace in Macedonia and now they do not believe that this agreement will provide the peace and they prefer a military presence. We think that we must have further talks with NATO for these questions to be resolved, and also that the alliance must further consider its own political position."
In Washington, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker yesterday signaled that the U.S. administration also does not favor an extension of the current NATO mission but would prefer a European force to protect the monitors.
Reeker said Washington is encouraging the EU to continue to review the situation and "take the lead in assembling a follow-on mission" if requested to do so by the government in Skopje.
French President Jacques Chirac, who is among the supporters of the EU proposal, spoke by telephone yesterday about the plan with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Chirac's spokeswoman, Catherine Colonna, said the French president told Putin it would not be reasonable to withdraw the international presence at the end of the arms collecting mission. Colonna said the conversation made it clear that France and Russia had "converging points of view."