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Macedonia: Latest Developments Test U.S. Staying Power

As fighting continues in Macedonia, questions persist about whether the United States has staying power in the Balkans. Will the U.S. withdraw its troops from Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo rather than continue what appears to be a military commitment without an end in sight?

Washington, 22 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The fighting in Macedonia between government troops and ethnic Albanians has raised questions about whether the United States would continue a seemingly open-ended military involvement in the Balkans

The U.S. currently has two major troop commitments in the region. They involve peacekeeping forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo.

During last year's presidential campaign, George W. Bush said he would review the role of U.S. troops in the Balkans. At his U.S. Senate confirmation hearing, Secretary of State-designate Colin Powell noted that Bush was hoping to reduce American troop levels there over time and in consultations with its allies.

Earlier this month, the U.S. ordered an 800-troop reduction of its 4,300 military peacekeepers from the 20,000-strong international force in Bosnia. However, Defense Department officials said the Bosnia move was decided in December before President Bill Clinton left office.

Nevertheless, the officials said another troop-level review would begin in April.

The United States has 5,600 troops in a NATO-led force in the Yugoslav province of Kosovo. The alliance says no cuts are intended in that KFOR force in the foreseeable future.

But the fighting in Macedonia appears to have complicated an already volatile situation. Macedonia has a sizeable ethnic Albanian minority, some of whom are committed to building a greater Albania. Others are merely seeking greater language and education rights within Macedonia.

U.S. troops stationed at the Kosovo-Macedonian border area have come under gunfire by ethnic Albanians in recent weeks. As the fighting persists, so do questions about whether the U.S. should pull out and ask the Europeans to handle it themselves.

Helmut Sonnenfeldt is a visiting scholar specializing in NATO and European affairs at the Brookings Institution, an independent Washington think-tank. He tells RFE/'RL that the Bush administration has tried to reduce fears of unilateral withdrawal of American troops from the Balkans.

"I think while the United States might dearly want to disengage from this whole seemingly continuous mess in that part of the world, I think circumstances being what they are at this time, the United States will have to be engaged in some form."

Sonnenfeldt says it is not likely that the U.S. would substantially reduce its troops in the region.

"Colin Powell did say at NATO that he accepted this rather long-standing European formula -- 'in together, out together.' However, the whole thing could blow up into a bloody mess. And the Albanians might indeed lose a lot of sympathy they got when they were being butchered by the Serbs (in Kosovo.)"

At a joint news conference in Washington on Wednesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and British Defense Minister Geoffrey Hoon discussed NATO's role and the situation in Macedonia.

"We have no plans to send troops to Macedonia."

Hoon agreed.

"That's not something that is on the agenda for the moment because clearly it is a matter for Macedonia in the first place to resolve."

Russian President Vladimir Putin also expressed concern about Macedonia in Moscow earlier this week.

"The situation is gradually going out of control. This is a big concern for the countries of the region, and, of course, for Russia."

Meanwhile, ethnic Albanian rebels in Macedonia have offered a unilateral cease-fire in their battle against government security forces.

The offer came hours before the expiration of a government ultimatum demanding that the rebels lay down their arms or face an assault by the army.

The Macedonian government has said it would not negotiate with armed rebels. And the ethnic Albanians have said they would not surrender their weapons prior to the talks.