The Macedonian government is asking the NATO alliance to remain in the country for a new mission after its current weapons-collecting operation ends on 26 September.
Prague, 18 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Macedonia's National Security Council has voted to accept a NATO security force in the country to help maintain stability after the alliance's 30-day mandate to collect weapons from ethnic Albanian militants expires on 26 September.
Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski's security adviser, Nikola Dimitrov, announced the decision after a meeting of the security council last night. The announcement was the first official confirmation that NATO would be asked to stay in the crisis zones of northern Macedonia past the end of this month. Dimitrov said:
"The [National Security Council] meeting resulted in an idea for a mission of NATO that considers the completion of the present operation. This will be a very restricted mandate, with a limited time frame and a much smaller military presence than that already in Macedonia. This mandate will be connected directly to the presence of the foreign monitors and with the symbolic influence of the NATO soldiers in the crisis region."
Dimitrov said he expects about 200 NATO troops to be deployed "on the ground" to protect monitors from the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
Those monitors are to confirm whether both government security forces and ethnic Albanian militants are observing a Western-brokered peace plan that was agreed upon by leaders of the country's main political parties in August.
Dimitrov's suggestion of about 200 NATO soldiers does not include those who would provide technical and logistical support for the mission. Reports suggest that a total of more than 1,000 NATO troops could remain in Macedonia as part of the mission.
In Brussels, NATO press officer Ariane Quentier told RFE/RL today that the alliance's political leadership has not yet received formal notification of Skopje's decision but expects to get it soon.
"We haven't got the complete concerns of what President Trajkovski is going to discuss, but we sort of have an idea that it is going to be something having to do with monitors -- EU and OSCE monitors probably. So we will have also to be in touch with the other organizations that are involved in the process."
Quentier says once NATO receives Macedonia's official request, there will be a series of meetings to hammer out the details on exactly how many soldiers will take part, how long the mission should last, and what kind of powers the troops will have.
"We are going to ask our military authorities to look into a concept of operations. Based on that, we will probably have an operation plan, which is the way we work -- all this being done with shuttle [missions] between the North Atlantic Council, capitals, and our military authorities and chiefs."
But Quentier confirmed that the new force is likely to be substantially smaller than the 4,500 troops who are now collecting weapons as part of the task force for Operation Essential Harvest:
"Whatever is going to be deployed is going to be completely separated from Task Force Harvest. It will have nothing to do with that. Not the same mandate. Maybe the same rules of engagement, but what I'm saying is that everything is going to be brand new. It's like starting another mission completely detached from Task Force Harvest, which is going to finish on 26 September."
Until now, officials in Skopje had insisted that any foreign troops in the country should only be there under a mandate from the United Nations Security Council. Skopje also had insisted that foreign troops should only be stationed along the borders with Kosovo and Albania to prevent a fresh supply of weapons and ammunition from being smuggled to ethnic Albanian militants.
President Trajkovski has argued that an ongoing NATO presence in Macedonia's interior would be used by the guerrillas to create a territorial division line within the country.
But the European Union and NATO are concerned that ethnic Macedonian paramilitary police could cause the entire peace process to unravel by conducting retaliatory attacks on ethnic Albanian villages once the guerrillas have disarmed.
NATO envoy Peter Feith sent a letter to authorities in Skopje recently demanding an explanation for the presence of a paramilitary group, called the Lions, in villages near the northwestern city of Tetovo.
Feith also asked Skopje to clarify the command structure of the Lions, who reportedly are loyal to ultra-nationalist Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski and do not respond to orders from army leaders.
NATO has not received an official response to Feith's letter. But in interviews with journalists, Boskovski has denied the existence of any paramilitaries in the country.
The issue surfaced once again after clashes broke out the night of 16 September in several villages near Tetovo.
NATO spokesman Mark Laity says NATO soldiers watched as undisciplined ethnic Macedonian police fired twice on ethnic Albanian villages.
The clashes were the most severe violations of the Western-backed cease-fire since NATO began collecting weapons from the guerillas. Laity called the incident a provocation by the ethnic Macedonian side that threatens the peace plan.
In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL over the weekend, President Trajkovski said that it would not be a reversal of Skopje's policy to ask for a new NATO mission.
"We have been cooperating with NATO for a long time. Around 2,000 NATO soldiers working as support for the KFOR mission in Kosovo are in Macedonia. When I said that NATO's mission should not be extended in Macedonia, I was talking about the Essential Harvest mission -- which itself has agreed deadlines and precise goals. This goal is, of course, to collect arms. And this mission should be ended at that point. If you had a chance to read my peace plan, it has been written that the fourth step of the peace process -- the return to a regular legal system -- should be put in practice in cooperation with KFOR and NATO. In other words, NATO should stay and the Essential Harvest mission should end."
NATO press officer Quentier told RFE/RL today that she does not expect there to be any power vacuum created by the end of Operation Essential Harvest -- even if the next mission doesn't officially start until sometime in October:
"It's probably going to take something between one and two weeks [for Essential Harvest troops] to withdraw from Macedonia, so that will ensure coverage of the area between the time Task Force Harvest pulls out and we get something new."