Uneasy peace greets British troops in Macedonia

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The Independent Online

The sound of sniper fire crackled in the background as two British army jeeps nosed their way into the village of Poroj. The gunfire was not far away – but then neither was the front line.

A few minutes after they passed through, a man was brought into the village, his face contorted with pain. He had been wounded in the sniper fire, and was hurried into the basement of a non-descript house that serves as the Albanian rebels' field hospital.

This is what awaits British troops in Macedonia. They have not come as peace-keepers, they are here only to collect weapons voluntarily surrendered by the Albanian rebel National Liberation Army (NLA). But they will find themselves in a dangerous, potentially hostile environment. The front lines are still drawn up, and the Western-brokered ceasefire is ignored almost daily – or rather nightly. The nights are when the real shooting starts.

A mile or so up the road from Poroj, the village of Neprosteno lies in ruins. What is left of the buildings was smouldering again yesterday after Neprosteno came under fire for two hours overnight.

The British soldiers were looking for the rebels in Poroj, but there were none in sight. Only a couple of days ago, the village was awash with them, and the tea garden off the main square was full of men in uniform cradling Kalashnikovs in their laps. One local said: "There are no fighters in Poroj. We have a ceasefire now." The sound of gunfire had echoed only a few minutes before.

Not until some time after the jeeps had moved on did the truth begin to dawn: the civilians milling around town were the same men who had been in uniform only days before. The order had apparently come down from Sipkovica, the rebels' base high in the mountains over the main Albanian city of Tetovo, for the rebels to come out of uniform. It was yet another piece of spin-doctoring from the rebels who have proved themselves the masters of PR. The smart uniforms were gone, the rebels were prepared to return to civilian life. One old man had kept his camouflage jacket draped over his civilian clothes.

But then the whole exercise of weapons collection is the politics of gesture. No one in Nato believes the rebels will give up all their weapons, not with the risk that the Macedonians will renege on the peace deal and attack them. Ljube Boskovski, the Macedonian Interior Minister, has openly said he wants to go ahead with prosecuting Ali Ahmeti, the rebel political leader, for war crimes.

New shipments of weapons are already on their way to the rebels from Kosovo, according to Nato intelligence. And they are probably busy burying caches in Macedonia.

But what Nato is waiting to see is whether both sides will go along with the gesture, and if the rebels will give up their guns as easily as their uniforms. The alliance said yesterday it had agreed the number of weapons to collect with the rebels – but it was keeping the final number a secret. The rebels have claimed they have only 2,000 weapons, while the Macedonian government has accused them of harbouring as many as 85,000. The truth is thought to lie somewhere between.

With the infringements of the ceasefire, and a series of incidents timed to coincide with developments in the peace process, there are clearly some in Macedonia who do not want the peace deal to succeed – possibly on both sides. The public line from the rebels remains that they are completely behind the Nato weapons collections, and will give up all they have. The NLA public relations machine is well oiled, and hardened commanders toe the line.

But in Poroj yesterday not everyone was happy. "We have many problems," said one NLA man who would not give his name. "If we give up our arms to Nato, what will happen to the Macedonian soldiers and police?" The Macedonian side has made no commitment to disarm. Recent reports suggest it too has new shipments on the way.

"Under whose control will they be?" asked the young NLA man. "Who will guarantee this peace deal?" His words underline growing suspicions that Nato will be dragged into more than collecting guns in a strictly limited 30-day operation.

The words "mission creep" are on everybody's lips. Yesterday, it seemed the number of soldiers in Operation Essential Harvest would be about 4,700, not 3,500 as the alliance said before. About 2,000 will be British. The 30-day limit will begin only once collections have begun. Nato commanders suggest that could be as soon as Monday.

The NLA's campaign has been a long time in the making, and some of its members seem reluctant to end it now. "This peace deal is only half the solution," one man complained of the peace deal signed under Western pressure, which makes some concessions to the Albanian minority – but not enough for everyone in Poroj.

Mr Ahmeti, the rebels' political leader, is desperately trying to present the NLA as behind the deal. One of the men in Poroj snorts: "Ali Ahmeti is happy because he's in his office. He should come and see what it's like in Neprosteno."