NATO begins last stage of weapons collection in Macedonia
SKOPJE, Macedonia (AP) – Ethnic Albanian rebels adhering to a Western-backed peace plan surrendered a prized battle tank to NATO soldiers Thursday, and a senior insurgent commander said the armed struggle was over in Macedonia.
”There will be no continuation of the fighting,” said Gezim Ostreni, military commander of the National Liberation Army – the ethnic Albanian guerrilla force that began its insurrection in February. ”We remain resolved to continue disarmament.”
Ostreni spoke by telephone to The Associated Press as NATO began the third stage of Essential Harvest to gather the last of about 3,300 weapons the rebels agreed to give up under a peace agreement signed last month.
At Radusa, a village in rebel-held territory near the border with Kosovo, Col. Philippe Bras, in charge of the final stage of the arms-culling effort, said he expected about 200 weapons to be handed in the next two days.
Under the step-by-step peace plan, parliament is to approve constitutional amendments granting the country’s ethnic Albanian minority greater language and political rights in exchange for the rebels handing in the weapons and disbanding. The ethnic Albanians make up about a third of the nation’s 2 million people.
The alliance has collected more than 2,200 weapons. Parliament was expected to discuss the constitutional amendments before the last third was collected. After hours of uncertainty over whether it would convene, the session began Thursday afternoon.
The discussion also had been delayed by a proposal by the small New Democracy party to put the constitutional amendments to a referendum. A referendum could disrupt the peace efforts and cause months of delay.
Under the phased peace plan, parliament is supposed to give final approval of the constitutional reforms after the rebels have handed over the 3,300 weapons.
Occasionally acrimonious parliament debate continued for hours Thursday, reflecting resistance by many lawmakers to the idea of granting the ethnic Albanian minority more rights, as foreseen by the peace plan.
A hand grenade explosion in an ethnically mixed Skopje neighborhood just before midnight raised tensions but left no casualties.
The majority of Macedonian legislators spoke out against a proposed amendment describing all the citizens of the country as on the same footing in the constitution. Instead, they demanded keeping the present language that sets apart Macedonians from minorities, including ethnic Albanians, more than a third of the population.
Still, Ostreni, the rebels’ military chief, was optimistic.
”All these debates are not that important,” he said. ”Parliament will ultimately do its job.”
Still, comments by some lower-ranked commanders reflected the readiness to fight on, should parliament or the Macedonian government fail to fulfill its part of the bargain.
”If the Macedonian government is not respecting the agreement, there will be war again,” Ratif Msusi, codenamed, ”The Teacher,” told a media pool or reporters selected by NATO to go to the collection site.
Most of the weapons being turned in Thursday were assault rifles, submachine guns, or bolt-action rifles.
But a NATO recovery vehicle also towed in a T-55 tank, captured by the rebels from the Macedonian army and covered with the initials UCK – the Albanian acronym for NLA – and graffiti. Before abandoning the tank, rebels hoisted village children on it, snapping photos of their prize trophy.
The NATO arms collecting mission is slated to end Sept. 26. A Macedonian government request for a small NATO force to protect international monitors beyond that date is being discussed at alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.
The U.N. refugee agency has called for a larger force, to assist in returning displaced persons.
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