Weapons harvest continues amid tension over Macedonia's peace

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The Independent Online

The Secretary General of Nato, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, flew into Macedonia on Wednesday to boost the alliance's mission of collecting arms from Albanian rebels, after a troubled first few days in which a British soldier was killed.

But, even as Lord Robertson cast his eyes over the Kalashnikovs and other weapons handed over by the rebels so far, future problems were looming.

Lord Robertson insisted that the 4,500 or so Nato troops in Macedonia for Operation Essential Harvest ­ up to 1,900 of them British ­ would leave as scheduled after 30 days, despite concern they may get bogged down in the country for longer.

But, in a signal that Nato may be forced to keep a presence in the country, the ultra-hardline Macedonian Interior Minister, Ljube Boskovski, predicted a security crackdown in Albanian areas after the alliance's troops leave.

"Nato's mission will not rid us of the bandits," Mr Boskovksi said. "When Nato leaves ... the Macedonian security forces still have to re-establish the rule of law on every millimetre of Macedonian soil, including Sipkovica and other current logistical centres for these terrorist groups." Sipkovica is the headquarters of the rebel National Liberation Army (NLA).

Some rebels have already warned that they will remobilise if Nato leaves – and will take up their positions again if there is a security crackdown.

As Nato Chinook helicopters headed for Tanuse, near the Albanian border, for the third day of weapons collections, Lord Robertson told journalists the handovers were, in effect, ending the rebels' insurgency.

What mattered, he said, was "the fact that the so-called NLA is handing over its weapons and disbanding as an organisation". The NLA says it is demobilising guerrillas as they hand over their weapons.

Nato has also become embroiled in a row with Macedonia's government about the number of weapons it will collect. The government says Nato's figure of 3,300 is too small, and claims the rebels have more than 60,000 arms.

"It is not just the number of weapons that matters," Lord Robertson said on Wednesday.

The numbers dispute is pure politics: the weapons collections were never expected to strip the rebels of all military capacity, and they have always been intended to be symbolic. In the gun-infested Balkans, the rebels can easily re-arm.

Mr Boskovski also told foreign journalists that he intends to go ahead with war crimes prosecution against the NLA's leaders ­ something unlikely to help the peace process.

The Macedonian government has complained that the rebels are only handing over older weapons, and keeping back the best. A government spokesman, Antonio Milosovski, said Operation Essential Harvest should be renamed "Museum Harvest".

Nato's next problem is in Macedonia's parliament, where hardlinemembers may use the dispute over weapons collection to derail the next stage of the peace process.

Under the Western-brokered Ohrid peace deal, parliament is supposed to vote for laws granting the country's Albanian minority greater rights in exchange for the NLA disarming. Nato is supposed to have collected a third of the 3,300 weapons by Friday. With 750 collected on Monday and Tuesday, it is well on target.

Western diplomats say they have persuaded the government to present the laws to parliament but, with the assembly dominated by ethnic Macedonians opposed to any concessions, there is no guarantee the new measures will go through.

Lord Robertson said: "Just as I expect the insurgents to deliver on their commitments, I expect the Macedonian members of parliament to also recognise their responsibility."

¿ Five hundred German troops were belatedly sent to Macedonia last night, after the Bundestag voted in favour of their participation in Operation Essential Harvest. The 497-130 vote followed weeks of political bickering because a German sortie in foreign fields is always preceded by much historically inspired hand-wringing. This time, party politics also came into play. If the troops' stay has to be extended beyond 30 days, the parliamentary horse-trading is likely to begin anew.

A mob threatened American medical staff treating Sapper Ian Collins, who was fatally injured in Macedonia on Sunday. Sapper Collins, 22, from Sheffield, died when unidentified youths hurled a lump of concrete on to the Land Rover in which he was travelling.

New details suggested the incident was clearly an attack on a Nato soldier. Associated Press quoted members of the US Army?s 407 Ground Ambulance Company describing how a hostile crowd gathered as they tried to save his life.

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