Anti-NATO sentiment boils over as troops move out across in Macedonia
SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) – A mob apparently angry at NATO’s role in Macedonia threatened U.S. medics as they treated a British soldier who was fatally injured this week when youths hurled pieces of concrete at his vehicle, the Americans said Wednesday.
The attackers remain unknown. However, Sunday’s death of Ian Collins, the first casualty of the NATO mission here, occurred at a time when many Macedonians are angry at the alliance. Many believe NATO’s mission to collect weapons from ethnic Albanian guerrillas has deprived the Macedonian army of the opportunity to crush the insurgents once and for all.
Other Macedonians are angry that NATO never managed to cut off the flow of weapons to the rebels from Kosovo, which has been under NATO control for two years.
On Monday, NATO spokesmen announced that Collins, of Britain’s 9 Parachute Squadron Royal Engineers, had been fatally injured when someone hurled an object at his vehicle while he was traveling on the main road between the northern city of Kumanovo and Skopje.
The NATO statement gave few details of the incident and did not identify those responsible. However, new details which emerged Wednesday in interviews with U.S. Army personnel who were at the scene suggested it was clearly an attack on a NATO soldier.
During interviews with The Associated Press, medics of the U.S. Army’s 407 Ground Ambulance Company said a hostile crowd gathered behind them as they were trying to save the soldier’s life.
One medic, Staff Sgt. Edna Flores of Morovis, Puerto Rico, described her 20-yard sprint to escape the mob as the longest moment of her life.
”On the way back I started thinking … ‘Oh my God, where have I been?”’ she said Wednesday.
The medics said they thought they were heading for a traffic accident when they responded to a call for help late Sunday. They were surprised to find the vehicle intact.
When they came around to the front of the vehicle, they found the windshield shattered and a British captain trying to assist his comrade.
Sgt. First Class Joseph Kaiser, 39, of Newport, R.I., Island started to work on Collins, while the others radioed information on his condition back to the hospital.
Flores noticed people coming from the shadows. She and her colleague, Sgt. Dencil Vargas, 28, of San Juan, Puerto Rico estimated the crowd numbered about 30.
Members of the crowd were making obscene gestures, shouting, waving their hands, yelling in a language the medics couldn’t understand.
Nervous, they picked up Collins on a stretcher and headed back for the car. The run seemed forever.
”As I drove away,” Flores said. ”I realized I was not safe.”
Anger at the alliance began building as the six-month old insurgency grew. Many began to blame NATO for failing to cut off the flow of rebel arms from neighboring Kosovo, widely believed to be a supply base for the militants.
Frustration surged in June after NATO evacuated ethnic Albanian rebels – and their weapons – from a village on the outskirts of the capital, Skopje. Macedonians rioted and accused the West of siding with the rebels.
Nowhere is this hard-line anti-NATO sentiment more clear than in the media, which is still largely state-controlled, and there’s no better example than its coverage of Collins’ death.
While NATO said Collins was struck by a flying projectile, Macedonian media suggested he may have died in some other way. Some reports said the incident was suspicious because reporters who went to the scene later found no evidence of a destroyed car and that NATO waited for hours before announcing the death.
”We doubt the incident happened at all,” an unnamed Interior Ministry official was quoted as saying by the country’s major daily newspaper, Dnevnik.
Aware that its message of being the guarantor of the peace deal is not reaching the general public, NATO has taken out newspaper advertisements, featuring an explanation of the mission and photos of the two senior generals, smiling benevolently.
U.S. Maj. Barry Johnson, the NATO spokesman, has tried to meet with individual journalists and editors, but with mixed success.
”I’ve been very frustrated by the misinformation and the way the facts have been presented by the Macedonian media, which has seemed to allude that NATO has been less than forthright” about the Collins case, Johnson said. ”In general, they will report the facts when they are presented to them, but the commentary that goes with it is notably anti-NATO.”
The anti-Western propaganda makes life that much tougher for the soldiers. The American medical team based at Camp Able Sentry no longer ventures into the capital, Skopje, to talk with colleagues at the hospital or look in on an orphanage they liked to visit.
But Flores and others in the unit insist they are determined to carry out their mission.
”There are a lot of people who want peace here,” Vargas said. ”We cannot turn our backs on them.”
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