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Macedonia: New Drive to Collect Weapons

Doubts raised over new move to collect nearly half a million illegal guns.
By Ana Petruseva

The Macedonian government is again trying to gather in the huge stocks of weapons left lying around the country in the aftermath of last year's bitter ethnic strife. In many quarters, its chances of success are not rated highly.


A previous NATO-sponsored disarmament drive last September netted more than 4,000 weapons, some 400,000 rounds of ammunition plus mines and explosives handed in by Albanian guerrillas from the National Liberation Army, NLA.


But everybody knew there were lots more where that came from. So, last Tuesday, the government called on parliament to pass urgent legislation for all remaining arms to be handed over.


Domestic intelligence sources estimated the number of illegally held arms at some 450,000. They say that about one-third of the 1.5 million weapons looted from Albanian armouries in 1997 found their way into Macedonia. More were believed to have come in during last year's conflict.


Police checkpoints will be established to make it easy for people to hand in guns and munitions. Those who do will be absolved from criminal charges for illegal firearms possession


Diplomatic sources told IWPR they estimated that tens of thousands of illegal weapons were still in circulation.


The interior ministry is rushing the new law forward to help preserve Macedonia's fragile peace process. In the past two months, illegal firearms have killed or wounded people in about 30 separate incidents.


Macedonian and Albanian major political parties joined in welcoming the new move. The main opposition party, Social Democratic Union of Macedonia, SDSM, expressed support for the law and proposed holding another registration procedure after the collection so that licensed weapons could be double-checked.


Albanian parties praised the decision but said the legislation should apply equally to both communities. Ilijaz Halimi, vice president of the Democratic Party of Albanians, suggested mixed Macedonian-Albanian police units should conduct the disarmament.


"It is important that people realise disarmament applies to both communities," one NATO official told IWPR. "Although the number of illegal weapons is probably higher on the Albanian side there are also plenty of guns held by Macedonians, especially those issued during the conflict and never returned. "


Many remain doubtful that the new measure will solve the problem of unlawful weapons in the long term. Analysts raise two main questions about the law.


First, what would motivate anyone to turn in illegal firearms? Previous plans for disarmament involved financial compensation. Second, who would oversee, or even organise, arms collection in the western, mainly Albanian populated part of the country, where former guerrillas remain mostly in control?


"We should be realistic - people who hold weapons do so with a reason. We shouldn't kid ourselves that this will solve the problem," the NATO official said.


Ana Petruseva is journalist with Skopje magazine Forum.


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