Rebel leader says he will disarm for Nato troops

Ali Ahmeti, the quiet man behind the ethnic Albanian rebels, promises co-operation and hints at a role in elections
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As the first Nato troops arrived in Macedonia yesterday, the leader of the country's ethnic Albanian rebels was quietly celebrating in a disused village schoolhouse high in the mountains.

Ali Ahmeti, the man who brought Macedonia to the brink of civil war, says the arrival of Nato troops to oversee the disarmament of his rebels did not mean defeat for his movement – but victory.

That is why he is insisting that his rebels will co-operate with the Nato troops arriving in the country, and willingly hand over their weapons.

A greying, urbane man, Mr Ahmeti looked ill at ease in military uniform, surrounded by the guerrilla chic of his heavily bearded, bandanna-wearing rebels. They cradled Kalashnikovs in their laps as they sat around school desks at a celebratory lunch. Children looking on from the far end in matching bandannas and berets were awed. It looked like a revolutionaries' tea party.

Meanwhile, Mr Ahmeti sat in the corner, an expensive silver pen tucked into the pocket of his fatigues. This quietly spoken man has been the mastermind of six months of armed rebellion that have brought his demands to the top of the international agenda.

When the rebellion began in March, the West dismissed Mr Ahmeti's National Liberation Army (NLA) as "terrorists", and backed the Macedonian government against it, praising Macedonia as a model of ethnic co-existence.

Now the government has signed a peace deal making several concessions to the country's Albanian minority. Mr Ahmeti has Nato negotiators calling on him regularly in his mountain-top base at Sipkovica, and Nato troops are arriving in Macedonia as the rebels have wanted all along.

Mr Ahmeti has become a man who has to be taken seriously – not least because the West's peace process cannot succeed without his co-operation. And he will co-operate, he says, because the peace deal is "good for us".

"The things we have not achieved we will take further by democratic means," he says, in the first of many hints that his mind is on Macedonia's upcoming general election.

Only six months ago, Mr Ahmeti was an obscure figure who had once been involved with the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) which fought Slobodan Milosevic's forces in Kosovo. But if he were to stand in elections in Macedonia now, he would probably command a large majority of the Albanian vote.

To Mr Ahmeti's men, clearly, the educated leader is a man apart and a hero. As he enters the room, they – mostly poor villagers – break out in spontaneous applause. Then they eagerly crowd round to have their photograph taken next to their leader.

Asked directly if he will stand in an election, the slightest hint of a smile plays across his usually deadpan face. "I came back here to stay," is all he says.

He has returned from self-imposed exile even though the Macedonian government has charged him with war crimes. But Sipkovica is firmly in rebel hands. Red and black Albanian flags are everywhere, the cars brandish home-made NLA license plates, and at one point a guerrilla rides down the main street on horseback like a medieval knight.

And though the Macedonian lines are only a few miles away, Mr Ahmeti insists he is in no danger. He says a general amnesty for the rebels will apply to him.

Some doubt the sincerity of the Macedonian government in signing the peace deal at all. Certainly, no observer seriously believes the rebels will hand over all their weapons and risk the Macedonian side reneging on the deal and attacking them.

But "they will not betray us," insists Mr Ahmeti, "not now we have Nato, the US and EU here." It has been the rebels' strategy all along to get the West involved – and yet another campaign that has been entirely successful. Mr Ahmeti carefully chooses his seat at the school with US, Nato and EU flags hanging behind it.

The guerrilla leader says his men will hand over their weapons to Nato troops as agreed – but only gradually as the peace deal is implemented, and in direct proportion to how much has been implemented. The Macedonian government, however, is insisting the deal will not be ratified by parliament until the rebels have completely disarmed – a looming problem for the Nato mission.

"There are forces who want to stop the peace process," Mr Ahmeti says. Asked if he means forces inside the Macedonian government, he laughs. "Of course," he says, breaking into stumbling English, and naming the Macedonian Prime Minister, Ljubco Georgievski, and the Interior Minister, Ljube Boskovski.

Accusations against the other side are only to be expected. But while Mr Ahmeti considers the peace deal a triumph, Mr Georgievski has called it a "shameful agreement". It may be that the biggest problems to face Nato troops in Macedonia will not come from the guerrilla base at Sipkovica – but from the Macedonian side.