Showing resolve despite first casualty, NATO launches mission to collect rebel arms
OTLJA, Macedonia (AP) – Showing resolve despite suffering its first casualty, NATO began collecting arms Monday from ethnic Albanian rebels who handed over mortars, machine guns and other heavy weaponry.
The British-led mission began within hours after marauding youths threw a block of concrete that struck a British soldier in the head and killed him Sunday evening. The death of Ian Collins, 20, of Britain’s 9 Parachute Squadron Royal Engineers was the first to strike Operation Essential Harvest.
NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson called the attack ”absurd,” saying the troops were in Macedonia ”to assist the people and the government … in achieving a peaceful and lasting solution to the current crisis.”
Although the killing underscored the tensions in the troubled Balkan country and the risks the 3,500 troops will face, NATO launched the weapons collections in Otlja, a village about six miles west of the city of Kumanovo.
”This regrettable incident will not affect the resolve of Task Force Harvest to complete the mission,” said Brig. Barney White-Spunner, the top-ranking British commander. The rebels condemned the attack; so did President Boris Trajkovski, who said his country remained committed to cooperating with the troops.
Mission spokesman Maj. Alexander Dick said NATO collected more than 300 assault rifles, between 60 and 80 light machine guns, 10 heavy machine guns and several anti-tank weapons, as well as mortars, ammunition, grenades and land mines.
”The atmosphere at the collection point was formal – not friendly but without antagonism,” Dick said. Some rebels, however, were visibly annoyed when told by NATO troops that they could not drive along the road past the weapons collection site.
NATO soldiers were cataloging the weapons ahead of shipping them to a staging area for destruction. Unstable ammunition would be destroyed on the spot.
A leader of ethnic Albanian rebel forces in the area who goes by the name Commander Shpati confirmed that his men had started handing in their weapons and that everything was going smoothly.
”I don’t want the war. Now I’m going to be a civilian,” an 18-year-old rebel soldier named Zejno said after turning in his gun.
A new peace accord envisions a step-by-step process in which the rebels hand over weapons to NATO in exchange for political reforms. Parliament is to begin debating the reforms once a third of the weapons are handed over, which could happen by the end of the week, and will vote on the legislation only after all weapons have been collected.
But as the 30-day mission got under way, both the rebels and the government expressed doubts that it would bring a lasting peace to Macedonia. The rebel National Liberation Army took up arms in February, saying it was fighting for greater rights for Macedonia’s minority ethnic Albanians.
”We had an order to give up our guns. We’re giving them, but we’re not at all sure about the situation,” said an NLA fighter in the rebels’ 114th Brigade who gave his name only as Musafer. ”From our side, the war is over, but we don’t trust the Macedonians. We will stay here until everything is over.”
Dozens of rebels, still fully armed, patrolled the nearby village of Matejce and other surrounding areas. The village commander, who goes by the name Met, cradled a Kalashnikov rifle in his arms, saying he would give it up ”only when all the Macedonian soldiers go back to their barracks.”
The Macedonian government, which considers the rebels to be ”terrorists” bent on seizing territory, characterized the mission as a farce because NATO has agreed to collect just 3,300 rebel weapons. The government insists the militants have tens of thousands of arms.
”The NATO mission is heading toward failure from the very beginning, because the figures of weapons to be collected are ridiculous,” government spokesman Antonio Milososki said Monday. ”Instead of being Essential Harvest, this mission will become Theatrical Harvest. … There will be a war in Macedonia as long as terrorists are armed.”
Though ethnic Albanians generally welcome the NATO deployment, the country’s majority Macedonians have been suspicious and sometimes hostile to the presence of foreign troops. Many blame NATO for failing to choke off weapons and supplies coming from neighboring Kosovo – support that is widely believed to be helping the rebels.
On Monday, a large crowd of angry Macedonians gathered in Tetovo, Macedonia’s second-largest city, in an attempt to block the army from withdrawing heavy weaponry along front lines.
Meanwhile, in an apparent act of goodwill, ethnic Albanian rebels on Monday released seven Macedonian civilians they had been holding prisoner for up to a month in the north of the country, the International Committee of the Red Cross said.
The releases came one day after the National Liberation Army set free another eight men it had been holding for months.
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