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Macedonia: NATO Commander Assesses Preconditions For Deployment

NATO's top commander in Europe arrived in Skopje today for a quick visit to assess the situation and report back to the alliance's 19 members on whether to proceed with the 30-day deployment of several thousand troops. As RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports, the focus of Ralston's visit is a shaky cease-fire.

Prague, 20 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Today's brief visit to Skopje by NATO's Supreme Allied Commander in Europe (SACEUR), General Joseph Ralston, is to assess whether the current cease-fire between Macedonian government forces and Albanian rebels is strong enough to allow NATO to collect arms from the rebels over a 30-day period.

Late last week, NATO's 19 member states, having already given the go-ahead for an advance party of some 400 troops -- mainly British, Czech, and French -- failed to agree on whether to authorize the deployment in Macedonia of the full force of 3,500 soldiers. But they did dispatch General Ralston to Skopje. He is due to report back to NATO ambassadors in Brussels tomorrow (21 August) with his findings, which will be key in their decision on whether to deploy the force.

The NATO troops, in what is code-named "Operation Essential Harvest," would establish collection sites for weapons that the insurgent ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army (UCK) would voluntarily hand over.

The cease-fire largely held over the weekend, although there was some shelling overnight in the Tetovo suburbs of Drenovec and Poroj. No casualties were reported. NATO's spokesman in Skopje, Major Barry Johnson, says the incident was intensive but of short duration, adding that the alliance is investigating cease-fire violations. He added a warning that extremist groups would be wrong to attempt to undermine the peace process.

Yesterday, UCK political commander Ali Ahmeti, in his first news conference -- held in a school room in the mountain village of Sipkovica near Tetovo -- said that as far as the UCK is concerned, the war is over. He said all of the UCK's fighters will hand over their weapons and that he does not expect any problems.

"We believe in the guarantees of this agreement by the European Union and the United States. We believe this agreement will be implemented according to European standards to the benefit of everyone regardless of community so that democracy and progress will move forward."

Ahmeti said the UCK fighters are willing to disband and go home because they have achieved their goals. He insists they fought for equal rights, not for territory:

"Everyone is a victor in this war. Not just Albanians, but Macedonians, too. Albanians have gained their rights and will no longer be discriminated against or mistreated. Everyone will be equals in their state."

When asked whether he is confident that the Macedonian government will uphold its pledge to respect the cease-fire and amnesty most of the rebels, Ahmeti would only repeat that NATO and the EU have given the ethnic Albanians guarantees about the implementation of the peace accord.

For their part, Macedonian authorities are concerned with a requirement that their security forces withdraw from the areas around the arms collection points to create a non-hostile environment. The Macedonian authorities appear to have done little, if anything, to lift the blockade, now in its third day, by a small group of nationalists from the World Macedonian Congress who have been blocking traffic near the Blace border crossing with Kosovo. The activists are demanding that NATO liberate ethnic Macedonians who they say have been kidnapped by the Albanian rebels.

Skopje is also concerned about the existence of a faction of insurgents who have yet to accept the peace deal that was initialed one week ago. That faction -- known as the Albanian National Army (UKSh) -- allegedly supports continuing the fighting with the goal of establishing a Greater Albania. Ahmeti denied that his forces have any connection with the UKSh, saying, "We do not know this organization."

Most regional commanders appear to be backing Ahmeti's call for an end to the fighting.

The regional Albanian commander in Radusa, northwest of Skopje -- who goes by the name of Mesuesi, or "teacher" -- spoke with RFE/RL's Albanian unit last night:

"If Ali Ahmeti and his leaders sign such an agreement, we will respect it. I cannot see any reason to make war or take up arms in a situation in which all open questions are being resolved."

Meanwhile, optimism among ethnic Albanians about the arrival of NATO forces has eased tensions in Tetovo. Murtezan Ismaili is Tetovo's mayor:

"Everything is calm in the town. The population is moving about. We can see there is optimism about the arrival of NATO forces to implement last Monday's agreement."

But state-owned radio paints a completely different picture of the situation in and around Macedonian-inhabited villages along the road between Tetovo and the Jazince border crossing. Radio Macedonia alleges that the latest violence, "including the frequent attacks of the last few days, are part of the ethnic cleansing and genocide [campaign] against the Macedonians."

With such starkly differing views, the durability of the cease-fire remains questionable.