With NATO's weapons-collecting mission in Macedonia due to end tomorrow, the political chief of the alliance visited Skopje today to complete the details of a follow-up security mission.
Prague, 25 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson has been in Skopje today for talks with Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski and government ministers about the country's Western-brokered peace plan.
Robertson this morning discussed Trajkovski's request for a NATO force that would stay in Macedonia after the expiration tomorrow of the alliance's mandate to collect weapons from ethnic Albanian militants. Robertson has been working out details of the follow-up mission, which will be called Operation Amber Fox.
Trajkovski has asked for a "light NATO presence" to protect some 250 monitors from the European Union and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Unresolved details of the new mission include the number of NATO soldiers involved, the length of their mandate and the specific powers of troops in the field.
Skopje initially suggested that about 200 NATO troops should be deployed to protect the monitors. Reports today suggest that NATO is seeking a force of between 300 and 1,000 soldiers. It remains unclear how many troops will be needed for logistical support.
In Brussels, NATO's North Atlantic Council had been scheduled to vote on Operation Amber Fox today. But the vote has been postponed until tomorrow's regular weekly meeting of NATO ambassadors. By that time, Robertson will have briefed the policy-making council on the results of today's talks in Skopje.
Both NATO and the government in Skopje have said the task force for Operation Amber Fox should be substantially smaller than the 4,500 NATO troops who have been collecting weapons as part of Operation Essential Harvest.
But Mark Thompson, the director of Balkans programs for the Brussels-based think-tank International Crisis Group, is expressing concern that the force will be too small and have an insufficient mandate.
"The security challenges are almost certain to grow after the end of Operation Essential Harvest. The international security presence, which is going to now be deployed, should be adequate to meet those challenges."
Thompson recommends that Operation Amber Fox include the task of maintaining security for both ethnic Macedonian and ethnic Albanian civilians who live in crisis regions -- particularly in territory now controlled by militants but due to be returned to the control of government security forces.
"The question is whether the NATO-led forces are going to assist in the wider security-related tasks, such as trying to provide some security for ethnically mixed communities [and] trying to help humanitarian agencies to get refugees and displaced persons back home."
The position of the Macedonian government so far has been that NATO should not be involved in any task beyond protecting monitors and guarding the borders with Albania and Kosovo against weapons smuggling.
Under the country's framework peace accord, ethnic Albanian fighters have been handing in a declared arsenal of some 3,300 weapons in exchange for promised political reforms.
A NATO spokesman in Skopje, Major Barry Johnson, says German General Gunnar Lange today sent a letter to President Trajkovski confirming that the handover is now complete. The heavier weapons surrendered by the militants reportedly include a Russian-built T-55 tank, several mortars, anti-tank mines and rocket launchers.
On the legislative side, the parliament in Skopje yesterday gave its preliminary approval to draft language for 15 constitutional amendments aimed at expanding the civil and language rights of ethnic Albanian citizens.
But most of those draft amendments were approved by the narrowest of majorities -- far short of the two-thirds majority needed for final passage.
The parliament today resumed a debate on a controversial initiative to put the package of amendments to a public referendum. That proposal is seen by Western mediators and NATO officials as an obstacle between the proposed reforms and their implementation.
The referendum was not mentioned in the framework agreement. NATO spokesman Mark Laity told RFE/RL today that such a referendum could threaten the entire peace process.
"A referendum inherently introduces two or three months of delay, and the commitment of the government was to get the whole framework agreement done in 45 days. If we were asked about it, we would say that the agreement has been signed and the commitments have been made. I think [Lord Robertson] would be wrapped up in the need to get the framework agreement [completed] fast because the process has got a huge momentum, and we are succeeding."
Laity also confirmed that Robertson will urge Macedonian lawmakers to carry through with their promise to grant amnesty to ethnic Albanian militants not indicted for serious crimes during their six-month insurgency.
"There is a variety of issues, four or five, [that Robertson has been discussing today]. The amnesty is one of them. We're not going to tell them how to do it, but we are going to say that there does need to be an amnesty -- that it is an essential part of reconciliation and confidence-building."
Robertson said upon his arrival in Skopje today that he has received assurances from President Trajkovski on an amnesty. Robertson told reporters that it is now up to the parliament to fulfill its side of the bargain in order to "support peace" in the country.