British soldier killed in NATO Macedonia mission

Click to follow
The Independent Online

A crowd of youths threw a block of concrete that struck and killed a British soldier in the first casualty of NATO's mission in Macedonia, military officials said.

The soldier was traveling in a car outside the capital, Skopje, at 7:40 p.m. Sunday evening when he was attacked, British military officials said.

The soldier was riding in an armored vehicle which was believed to be traveling on a military route, a Ministry of Defense spokesman said. Another person was inside the vehicle but was uninjured. No names were released, pending notification of the soldier's family.

The soldier was taken first taken to the U.S. Army's Base in Macedonia, Camp Able Sentry, and then on to the U.S. hospital at Camp Bondsteel in neighboring Kosovo. He was later transported back to Skopje University Hospital, where he died.

The slaying caused unease as NATO geared up Monday to begin the British–led mission, Operation Essential Harvest, to collect weapons from ethnic Albanian rebels. Though ethnic Albanians generally welcome the deployment, ethnic Macedonians have been suspicious and sometimes hostile to the presence of foreign troops.

NATO did not immediately indicate whether it was considering putting the mission on hold or canceling it altogether. About 1,400 British soldiers will take part in the mission, which will involve roughly 3,500 troops, many of whom already have arrived in Macedonia.

Underscoring the tensions in the troubled Balkan country, a pair of bomb blasts rocked Skopje late Sunday and early Monday. Both attacks occurred near shopping areas, but no injuries were reported.

Macedonians largely blame NATO for the country's six–month ethnic Albanian insurgency, accusing the alliance of failing to choke off weapons and supplies coming from Kosovo – support that is widely believed to be helping the rebels.

The slaying occurred just as Macedonian forces began pulling back from positions around sites where NATO will begin collecting weapons from the militants. The collection is part of a peace plan meant to avert civil war.

NATO is planning to collect 3,300 weapons from ethnic Albanian rebels in a mission scheduled to last for no more than 30 days.

French and British troops were to fly out to a site Monday which they will secure in preparation for the arrival of rebels, known as the National Liberation Army. The insurgents will surrender weapons as part of a peace plan designed to end six months of conflict in the tiny Balkan nation.

Despite NATO optimism about their mission, Macedonian government officials later said they did not agree with the alliance's figures on the number of weapons.

Premier Ljubco Georgievski called the figure "ridiculous and humiliating," saying the true number was closer to 60,000. His statement underscored the problems the NATO mission will face.

The peace deal envisions a step–by–step process in which rebels hand over weapons to NATO in exchange for political reforms. Parliament is to begin debating the reforms once a third of the weapons are handed over, scheduled for the end of the week. The legislation is to be voted on only after all the arms have been collected.

But with the government insisting on higher figures, it was unclear how or when parliament would begin its debate, calling into question the success of the mission.

NATO officials acknowledge the mission is delicate, but insist it is the only way to prevent further conflict.

"There are no guarantees and the path will not be easy and the alternative is clear," said Maj. Gen. Gunnar Lange, the military commander of Operation Essential Harvest. "The alternative is war."