Macedonian rebels emerge from hideouts to surrender weapons to NATO forces
BRODEC, Macedonia (AP) – Submachine guns slung over their shoulders, hundreds of rebels left their hideouts Tuesday and streamed toward a former mountain stronghold to surrender their weapons to NATO, in an operation meant to contribute to permanent peace in Macedonia.
On the second day of their arms collecting mission, NATO officers at Brodec, just northeast of the ethnically tense northern city of Tetovo, described the insurgents as complying with terms of their agreement with the alliance that commits them to surrendering thousands of weapons.
In exchange, the Macedonian-dominated government has agreed to political concessions meant to benefit the ethnic Albanian minority and permanently defuse a six-month ethnic Albanian guerrilla campaign before it turns into civil war.
Reporters flown to the site by a NATO helicopter saw approximately 100 rebels lined up to turn in weapons in the space of two hours. Dozens more were seen moving toward the highland village, downhill from surrounding mountains or making their way up from Tetovo, the site of several major clashes during the height of the insurgency.
Clad in black, or camouflage, some of the rebels smiled and embraced comrades as they arrived to the collection point, a two-story brick house. The asphalt path to the building was lined by NATO troops. More NATO forces were positioned on surrounding ridges and other strategic areas nearby.
Reporters were not allowed inside the house. NATO officials said that once the weapons were collected they were to be put into two red containers set up at a nearby meadow and taken away to be destroyed.
Lt. Col. Chip Chapman, a British Paratrooper, said that some 100 weapons had been handed in between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. Expectations were that the rebels would hand over about 200 arms by the end of the day, he added.
According to the peace plan, the rebels are handing over weapons to NATO in a British-led mission dubbed ”Essential Harvest,” in exchange for step-by-step political reforms.
Parliament is to begin debating the reforms once a third of the weapons have been surrendered, which could happen by the end of the week. Lawmakers will vote on the legislation only after all weapons have been collected.
The alliance has said it expects to gather 3,300 weapons. But the government insists the true size of the rebel arsenal is much bigger, with Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski setting the figure closer to 60,000.
Because the government does not accept NATO’s weapons figures, hard-liners could try to stall the process from moving ahead as planned.
Still, NATO officers at the scene suggested the rebels were keeping their end of the bargain.
Chapman said that ”some surface-to-air missiles” had also been handed over Tuesday – the first of their kind to be voluntarily surrendered by the ethnic Albanian insurgents.
”They are very compliant,” Chapman said of the ethnic Albanians.
Insurgent commanders said their men were complying with the first stage of the agreement committing them to surrender a third of their weapons. One of them, who identified himself only as Lluli, expressed relief that the armed fight for more ethnic Albanian rights appeared to be over.
”I hope the operation goes according to plan,” Lluli told reporters. ”I want to return to normal life.”
Civilians manning a blockade near the border crossing between Kosovo and Macedonia permitted Turkish troops to pass through their barricades. The move was significant in that it indicated a slight relaxation of tensions between Macedonian civilians and NATO troops.
Still, some problems slowed NATO attempts to ease tensions. Fearful that a withdrawal of government troops could leave them vulnerable to attacks by ethnic Albanians, some 50 Macedonians blockaded a road in Tetovo. The peace agreement mandates withdrawals in areas where rebel and government forces are close to each other.
On Tuesday, Germany’s opposition dropped its resistance to sending soldiers to Macedonia after the government promised more money to protect them, ensuring a majority for the deployment in parliament. Parliament’s vote is set for Wednesday and the first Germans troops would leave for Macedonia the same evening.
The mission suffered its first casualty Sunday when youths threw a block of concrete at a NATO vehicle, killing 20-year-old British soldier Ian Collins of the 9 Parachute Squadron Royal Engineers. British army investigators in London said Tuesday the nationality of the attackers remained unclear.
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