NATO launched "Operation Essential Harvest" as planned today despite not having reached an agreement with the Macedonian government on the number of weapons it will collect from ethnic Albanian rebels. As RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports, the operation began with the announcement that a British soldier was killed in an incident just hours before.
Prague, 27 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- "Operation Essential Harvest" has reported its first casualty.
A group of young people last night threw a chunk of concrete through the windshield of a British armored vehicle that was on the highway from the airport into Skopje. The act resulted in serious head injuries to one of the two occupants of the vehicle.
The British soldier, 20-year-old Ian Collins, died later in hospital. A British Defense Ministry spokesman says the other serviceman in the vehicle at the time was not injured.
A NATO spokesman, British Major Neil Peckham, told RFE/RL in a phone interview from Skopje today that there are indications that this attack appears to be part of a pattern against NATO vehicles that has been building up over the past few weeks:
"There have been other instances of NATO vehicles, i.e. green military vehicles, being targeted by unknown individuals, the dropping of projectiles off road bridges and throwing projectiles at the vehicles as well."
However, British Defense Minister Geoff Hoon says the soldier's death was more likely the result of "mindless hooliganism rather than a concerted attack on NATO troops."
The mission commander, Brigadier Barney White-Spunner, issued a statement today saying that "this regrettable incident will not affect the resolve of Task Force Harvest to complete the mission."
The Macedonian Defense Ministry also issued a statement denouncing the incident and noted that "NATO soldiers came here at the invitation of the Macedonian government to assist the collection of terrorist weapons and to restore peace and stability in the country."
Three British servicemen died in two previous incidents this year while patrolling the Kosovo side of the Macedonian border -- one when his vehicle hit a landmine and two others in a helicopter crash in bad weather.
Some 1,400 British soldiers are participating in the 30-day "Operation Essential Harvest" out of a total NATO force of about 3,500 sent to Macedonia to disarm the rebel National Liberation Army (UCK).
An article in the latest issue of "Jane's Defence Weekly" says "the mandate of the U.K.-led NATO force is over-cautious and the troops are too lightly armed for it to be seen as robust and credible by the local protagonists."
UCK rebels began handing over a variety of arms and ammunition to NATO forces this morning at Matejce, west of Kumanovo. In the words of NATO spokesman Barry Johnson: "We have begun the operation and collections are actively in progress."
UCK commander Shpati, speaking with RFE/RL's Albanian unit today, confirmed that the hand-over has begun:
"It started at 1000 [hours] this morning on the basis of implementing the demobilization agreement. This action is continuing normally without any interruption from our side."
Shpati says the UCK has information that Macedonian security forces are withdrawing their heavy weapons from the vicinity of the weapons collection points as stipulated in the U.S.- and EU-brokered peace deal of 13 August. However, he says the UCK is not withdrawing its forces to pre-5 July lines since, "we have nowhere to go."
As if to emphasize this, the NATO-led KFOR peacekeeping force announced in Pristina today that it has detained an additional 96 UCK rebels who had crossed illegally from Macedonia, bringing to 750 the number of insurgents detained on the border since early June.
But in the Tetovo suburb of Koltuk, several hundred angry Macedonians gathered to try to prevent the Macedonian army from withdrawing tanks and armored personnel carriers from an area near a weapons collection site. The protesters say they fear that if the Macedonian army withdraws, they will be killed or expelled from their homes by Albanian rebels.
Macedonian Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski said last night after a meeting of the National Security Council that he opposes the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the disarmament sites as long as the UCK fails to pull back as previously agreed to the positions it held before 5 July.
Meanwhile, tensions are growing in the Macedonian community after two Macedonian men were killed yesterday morning when a bomb destroyed the Brioni Motel [at Celopek] just south of Tetovo. President Boris Trajkovski condemned the attack as "a bloodthirsty act that is proof the Albanian terrorists are conducting ethnic cleansing operations and the forcible eviction of Macedonians and others of non-Albanian origin from their ancient hearths."
Local media allege the attackers tortured two motel employees, aged 39 and 47, before stripping them and tying them to a bomb, which was then detonated.
However, the UCK's political representative issued a statement on the insurgents' website that says, "UCK headquarters severely condemn the terrorist act committed by the criminals." The UCK statement says "such acts only endanger peace and future of the state, and only those who want to revive hate among citizens could profit from them."
Meanwhile, two more bombs went off overnight in Skopje. The first destroyed a Macedonian-owned cafe in a predominantly Albanian neighborhood, while the second explosion a few hours later blew out shop windows and damaged several cars but caused no injuries.
NATO yesterday issued a breakdown of the 3,300 weapons it expects the Albanian rebels to hand over.
Major General Gunnar Lange of Denmark, speaking in Skopje yesterday, said the figures provided by the UCK are very close to NATO's estimate of 3,300:
"The numbers [provided by the UCK] are very close to our own estimates as to what we believe they have. We do believe, however, that once [the arms are] collected and destroyed, the so-called [UCK] will effectively have been disarmed."
Lange says the arms to be handed over to NATO troops for destruction include 2,950 assault weapons, as well as 110,000 rounds of ammunition, 210 machine guns, 130 mortars and anti-tank weapons, six air-defense systems, two tanks, and two armored personnel carriers. Macedonian authorities insist the figure is far higher, with government officials offering various tallies ranging from 50,000 to 85,000.
Georgievski said yesterday that "3,000 weapons is a ridiculous and humiliating figure for Macedonia" and declared that the number of weapons in the rebels' hands is "at least 60,000."