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NATO: Operations In Macedonia Wind Down As EU Prepares To Take Over

In its effort to continue downsizing its military presence in the Balkans, NATO has replaced its peacekeeping operation in Macedonia with a smaller, short-term operation. And as RFE/RL reports, NATO is to hand over the operational portion of its presence in Macedonia to the European Union as early as February.

Prague, 16 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The international community's most straightforward success story in the Balkans, Macedonia, is entering a new stage of peacekeeping with the winding down of NATO's Operation Amber Fox and the launch of Operation Allied Harmony.

Amber Fox, which had 700 troops under German command when it was launched in 2001, was tasked with protecting international monitors observing implementation of the Ohrid peace accord.

Amber Fox followed Operation Essential Harvest, a 30-day mission by 3,500 NATO troops to disarm and destroy the weapons of several thousand ethnic Albanian insurgents who had staged a seven-month rebellion in Macedonia's mountainous northwest.

In contrast to the far larger and more dangerous missions that NATO undertook in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, NATO's presence in Macedonia has been modest yet effective.

Brigadier General Jan Harm de Jonge is Amber Fox's outgoing Dutch commander. He said: "Macedonia has taken an important step forward. NATO recognizes this and adapts its commitment to Macedonia."

Allied Harmony will begin with 450 soldiers: 70 Germans, 25 Americans, and 25 liaison teams. NATO said the purpose of the new mission is twofold: "continued support for the international monitors and assistance to the government in taking ownership of security throughout the country."

Allied Harmony will also advise the Macedonian Army on reforms, in part to help it qualify for eventual membership in NATO. The alliance says the modalities of its continued presence in Macedonia will be reviewed in February.

NATO had originally been scheduled to conclude its peacekeeping operations in Macedonia yesterday, passing its peacekeeping mandate to the EU. But NATO agreed last month to extend its presence in Macedonia after the EU said it would not be able to meet the 15 December deadline.

Part of the reason for the delay was because Turkey, a NATO member, was unwilling to share NATO resources, particularly heavy-lift aircraft, with the European Union. Ankara relented, however, after the EU at its Copenhagen summit last week set 2004 as a target for Turkey to implement reforms and thereby qualify to open accession talks.

At the conclusion of the EU summit late on 13 December, French President Jacques Chirac announced that EU forces would take over from NATO in Macedonia "in the coming weeks" in the EU's first-ever peacekeeping operation.

The EU presidency's conclusions issued at the end of the Copenhagen summit confirmed the EU's "readiness to take over the military operation [in Macedonia] as soon as possible in consultation with NATO" and called on the EU's various bodies "to finalize work on the overall approach to the operation, including development of military options and relevant plans."

The EU also confirmed its willingness to take over the peacekeeping operation in Bosnia-Herzegovina from the NATO-led Stabilization Force, or SFOR. It invited the international community's high representative in Bosnia, Paddy Ashdown, to open talks toward that end with EU foreign-policy and security chief Javier Solana and to report back in February.

Similarly, NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson issued a statement on 13 December announcing that NATO and the EU "have taken a major step forward in putting into effect the strategic partnership between the two organizations."

Robertson said the North Atlantic Council agreed to adopt a series of decisions with a view to maintaining a close and transparent relationship with the EU and supporting EU-led operations in which the alliance as a whole is not engaged militarily. He said, "EU access to NATO planning capabilities able to contribute to military planning for EU-led operations is now assured, effective immediately" and that "detailed arrangements for implementing each of the elements should be in place by March 1."

Details were worked out today at a meeting of the North Atlantic Council and the Political and Security Committee of the European Union at NATO headquarters in Brussels.

Robertson said today after the meeting that these decisions will provide a "permanent framework from the European Union and NATO in support of peace and stability."

Robertson's spokesman Mark Laity has said that NATO will remain in Macedonia to assist in carrying out reforms in the country while the EU will take over operational matters.

Macedonian presidential spokesman Borjan Jovanovski said he sees no problem with NATO remaining in Macedonia. "To a large extent, this is a question of the mandate for supporting reforms under way in Macedonia in line with plans for intensifying our integration with NATO. And second, the mandate is aimed at helping state policy in the stabilization of the country," Jovanovski said.

However, Macedonia's deputy defense minister, Rizvan Sulejmani, reflected a view widely held among the country's Albanian community when he said that NATO, with its U.S. component, is a far more capable force than any newly established EU contingent. "The only forces with competence, authority, and experience in these kinds of situations were and remain the NATO forces," Sulejmani said.

It remains unclear, however, how long the NATO and EU forces will exist side by side in Macedonia.