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New Macedonian Mission

NATO embarks on a complex task of helping to stitch a divided and embittered Macedonia back together.
By Svetlana Jovanovska

NATO's new mission to bring peace in Macedonia will require political shrewdness rather than firepower, negotiating skills more than military tactics.


Dubbed Operation Amber Fox, the mission's task is to help put Macedonia back the way it was before civil strife flared at the start of 2001. It is charged with aiding the restoration of trust between the feuding ethnic Macedonian and ethnic Albanian population.


The exercise replaced Operation Essential Harvest whose objective was to gather in arms from the ethnic Albanian guerrillas of the National Liberation Army, NLA.


Approval for Amber Fox came after several days of difficult negotiations last week between NATO and the Macedonian government. The alliance's original plan envisaged 1000 to 1200 troops with a six to nine month mandate.


But the Skopje authorities feared NLA members might use the alliance presence to partition the country, proposing instead a smaller mission with about 700 troops and a mandate of three months.


A compromise was agreed under which 700 new troops would be deployed alongside 300 troops already in Macedonia. Their mandate will be for three months with a possible extension depending on events. "Most of the troops will remain in barracks unless they are called to deal with an incident that could threaten the international monitors," said Mark Laity, NATO spokesman in Skopje.


Germany, which is providing 600 troops under the command of Brigadier General Hainz-Georg Kerl, will lead the mission. Among 10 other nations taking part is France with 200 soldiers.


Some 100-200 troops are expected to be deployed as a liaison team between former NLA members and the Macedonian authorities. "The troops will be mobile, flexible and capable of rapid action," General Kerl said.


NATO, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, and the European Union, EU, are closely coordinating the mission. The United Nations has passed a resolution of support for Amber Fox, giving it broad international legitimacy.


UN support was considered vital for a mission which is by no means risk-free. NATO troops are the essential security component without which the planned political reform programme in Macedonia could come to a dead end.


"It is not going to be easy. The situation in Macedonia is still fragile but there won't be another Srebrenica," said Mikael Stainer, the foreign policy advisor to the German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. He was referring to the massacre of thousands of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica in 1995 when it was a UN Safe Zone. He added that NATO would not hesitate to use force if necessary.


The EU and the OSCE decided to send 284 monitors to observe implementation of the Macedonian peace accord under which Albanian refugees will return to their homes and Macedonian regular security forces will go back to the posts they occupied before the fighting started.


The role of the international observers will be especially important in reducing ethnic tensions and furthering the creation of a stable, multi-ethnic state. EU sources say the monitors will need to consult the leaders of Albanian political parties in Macedonia before they give a signal that the areas are safe enough for the regular police to enter and for refugees to start returning.


"Returning Macedonian security forces to areas controlled by the rebels will be one of the most difficult tasks," admitted German foreign minister Joschka Fischer. Laity told a press conference there should be no illusions, "Nobody should expect milk and honey overnight. There will be problems, there will be violence. There will be incidents."


NATO sources quoted by Reuters said the biggest potential obstacle to reducing ethnic tensions will be Macedonian paramilitary forces and police reservists, which are not part of the regular security forces.


To reduce the risk of violence NATO, the EU and the OSCE have urged the Macedonian authorities to speed up adoption of the peace accord's constitutional changes and to pass a law granting amnesty for NLA rebels.


The Government, especially its nationalistic wing headed by Prime Minister Ljupco Georgievski and the interior minister, Ljube Boskovski, fears that such a law would incite fierce reaction from the Macedonian majority and cost them votes in elections scheduled for the beginning of 2002.


The Macedonian authorities have shown they are impatient to take back territories seized by the NLA. But the NATO secretary general, George Robertson, warned that the amnesty is a key element in achieving this. The government knows it risks violence if it insists on returning regular police to sensitive areas before a general pardon is adopted.


Defence minister, Vlado Boskovski said in an interview with TV Telma, "We should accept that we have undertaken an obligation that is part of the peace plan. We have a difficult task to return to those territories and everyone should know that without that law (on amnesty) it will be hard for police to return".


The complete return of police will be achieved when police patrols include both ethnic Macedonians and ethnic Albanians, working alongside NATO and international monitors. Neither Macedonia nor international officials have a precise timetable for that goal but it is clear that restoration of trust after seven months of crisis will be a long and difficult process.


The author is a correspondent of Skopje's daily Dnevnik from Brussels


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