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Macedonia: Skopje Advances On Peace Plan, Denies Paramilitaries At Work

NATO troops in Macedonia have completed the second phase of their operation to collect weapons from ethnic Albanian militants, and the peace process appears to be moving forward. But there are fresh concerns about stability in the country after reports of ethnic Macedonian paramilitary groups operating in parts of the country.

Prague, 13 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The implementation of a Western-brokered peace deal in Macedonia continued to move forward today as the parliament in Skopje began debates on promised constitutional amendments.

Under accords signed by leaders of the country's main political parties last month, ethnic Albanian militants are voluntarily surrendering an arsenal of 3,300 weapons to NATO in a three-phased operation. In exchange, parliament has promised to pass a series of constitutional amendments that gives greater political and language rights to ordinary ethnic Albanians.

NATO's chief spokesman in Macedonia, Major Barry Johnson, says the stage for today's parliamentary debates was prepared yesterday when the second phase of the weapons collection mission was completed.

"We've advised the president [of Macedonia] that at least two-thirds of the weapons anticipated have been collected. In fact, more than that have been collected. And so now we are prepared to start the next phase, the final phase, of collecting weapons -- once the conditions are right politically for us to do so."

Under the Western-brokered accords, known as the framework peace agreement for Macedonia, parliament is not required to approve the promised constitutional changes until after the militants' arsenal has been completely handed over to NATO and the rebels have disbanded.

NATO officials say they hope the final phase of their weapons collecting operation can begin by 21 September so that the alliance can complete its mission before its mandate in Macedonia expires on 26 September.

But Major Johnson explained that the final phase of NATO's mission can only begin after parliament confirms the language of the promised amendments:

"The next step for parliament is [to work on] 32 amendments as proposed in the framework agreement. They will be confirming [the language of] those amendments, but not necessarily voting them into the constitution. And then there will be a constitutional vote after the final phase [of weapons collection] is completed."

Despite the success of NATO so far in meeting its collection targets, European leaders are warning that the sudden withdrawal of the 4,500-strong NATO force at the end of this month could destabilize the situation in Macedonia and lead to renewed violence.

In particular, Western leaders are concerned about an ethnic Macedonian paramilitary group called "The Lions" that NATO troops say they have seen operating in villages near the northwestern city of Tetovo.

NATO's representative in Macedonia, Peter Feith, wrote a letter to Macedonian authorities asking for the paramilitaries to be removed from the highly sensitive area around Tetovo. NATO says the status of the group is unclear and its chain of command is uncertain -- raising concerns about whether the government is in a position to prevent the group from conducting possible attacks against ethnic Albanian villages.

Macedonia's interior minister, Ljube Boskovski, says NATO is mistaken about the existence of any paramilitaries. He says NATO troops encountered Macedonian army reservists.

NATO's Major Johnson told RFE/RL today that despite denials by Macedonian authorities to the press about the existence of the paramilitaries, NATO has yet to receive any official response to Feith's letter.

"We have very real concerns that paramilitaries do exist and are operating [in Macedonia]. The letter requested clarification from the government on the status of these groups, and we have not yet received an official response to our concerns."

The commander of ethnic Albanian militants in the region, who identifies himself to reporters as "Shpati," says that NATO's continued presence is not only reassuring for ethnic Albanians but also necessary for the stability of all of Macedonia.

Both Interior Minister Boskovski and Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski have said that an ongoing mission by NATO is not needed.

"[The interior ministry's] position, as well as the position of the president of the nation, Boris Trajkovski, is that after 26 September, NATO should withdraw and leave Macedonia, returning only when Macedonia feels a need for their presence."

President Trajkovski has said that a continued NATO-led mission in Macedonia could be acceptable provided that it operates under a UN mandate. But both he and Boskovski say such a multinational force should operate only along the country's porous borders with Kosova and Albania in order to prevent ethnic Albanian militants from smuggling fresh supplies of weapons and ammunition into Macedonia.

Trajkovski and Boskovski say they don't want a multinational force in areas other than the border regions because the troops would, in essence, enforce a division line between government troops and the militants.

They say such a situation would allow the militants to continue to occupy land that they have seized in the north and northwestern parts of the country since they launched an insurgency in February.