- The Washington Times - Friday, July 6, 2001

The United States and its NATO allies yesterday edged closer to yet another Balkan military deployment after pushing through a cease-fire deal between the government of Macedonia and armed ethnic Albanian separatists.
NATO leaders hailed the cease-fire agreement but stressed that any deployment to the troubled country depended on an agreement still to be negotiated between the minority Albanians and the country's majority Slavic Macedonian parties.
A deployment, which could come later this month, would involve about 3,000 troops with a primary mission to disarm the rebels.
The U.S. contribution would be limited to fewer than 500 troops providing logistical and support services, and would be drawn from forces already stationed in the region.
Both Macedonian and NATO officials said the nationwide cease-fire in the nearly 5-month-old conflict greatly improves the prospects of a political deal.
German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping told reporters in Berlin yesterday there was a "realistic perspective" that the NATO contingent could enter Macedonia soon after July 15, but that a hard and fast political peace deal must be in place.
The Bush administration welcomed the Macedonian deal but cautioned that the NATO mission wasn't certain.
"Obviously, having a formal cease-fire is a major step forward in the process of calming the country," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday.
But he added: "Until there is that disarmament process agreed to between the parties, the NATO [deployment] wouldn't kick in."
Underscoring the fragile nature of the peace effort, Macedonian government artillery and helicopter gunships yesterday continued to pound rebel-held positions near Tetovo, the country's second-largest city, just hours before the cease-fire officially took effect.
Under a plan approved last month by NATO's 19 member-countries, a brigade of 3,000 troops would be deployed at designated stations to collect arms from the shadowy "National Liberation Army" (NLA), a guerrilla force that has fought a tenacious campaign against Macedonian security forces since beginning surprise attacks along the country's northern border with Kosovo in February.
British troops would lead the operation, along with major contributions from Italy, France and other European powers.
Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. Craig Quigley told reporters yesterday that no final decision had been made on the extent of U.S. participation in the force.
The mission, dubbed "Operation Essential Harvest," is supposed to last four to six weeks, but analysts caution that past Balkans missions in Bosnia and Kosovo have evolved into virtually open-ended commitments for the United States and NATO.
"People are right to be skeptical," said Daniel Serwer, director of the Balkans Project at the U.S. Institute of Peace and a specialist on the region in the Clinton administration.
"There is a history of troops going in and staying longer than anyone expected, but that also may not be the worst thing in the world if it prevents a civil war there," he said.
Mr. Serwer said a second danger is that the NATO mission could clear the way for a de facto ethnic separation of the country, where ethnic Albanians make up between a quarter and a third of the population.
The rebel group has pushed hard for an international settlement of the conflict, calculating that it would give it virtually equal status with the Macedonian government in any power-sharing accord.
Rebel leaders stressed the Western role as broker yesterday in agreeing to the open-ended, nationwide cease-fire.
"This cease-fire is different from the ones before and more important because it was brokered by the European Union, the United States and NATO leaders," NLA commander Genzim Ostreni told the Associated Press.

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