- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 21, 2001

NATO and the United States yesterday edged closer to yet another military mission in the Balkans, approving plans to prepare a brigade-sized force to oversee a potential disarmament of ethnic Albanian rebels battling the government of Macedonia.
NATO Secretary-General George Robertson, who arrived in Washington yesterday for talks with senior Bush administration officials, stressed in a briefing with reporters that the NATO force would enter Macedonia only under "benign conditions" after the countrys leading Macedonian and ethnic Albanian parties had hammered out a cease-fire and long-term power-sharing compromise.
"This is not an armed intervention," Mr. Robertson insisted. "It will be a force appropriate to the task in benign conditions."
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, testifying yesterday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said no decision had been made on whether U.S. troops would be part of the proposed disarmament force, but he made it clear U.S. participation was a live option.
"In fact, we have roughly 700 [support troops] in Macedonia already, and they at some point could become a part of that process," Mr. Powell said.
President Bush on his European trip last week said the United States still hoped for a political resolution to the Macedonian crisis, which many feared could spark other clashes in the region. At the time, administration officials said they did not support a military role for NATO to aid the beleaguered government in Skopje.
The shadowy National Liberation Army, reportedly with links to ethnic Albanian allies across the border in Kosovo, have seized several towns in northern Macedonia since early February and engaged in deadly firefights with government security forces.
The fighting has put severe pressure on the coalition government and raised ethnic tensions in a country where Albanians make up between one-quarter and one-third of the population.
But hopes for a peaceful end to nearly four months of ethnic guerrilla warfare in Macedonia received a severe blow yesterday when five days of talks aimed at ending the rebellion collapsed, with each side accusing the other of intransigence. The peace plan includes a partial amnesty for Macedonian-born rebels who agree to disarm.
Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski said ethnic Albanian political leaders were demanding a new constitution that would permanently divide the country along ethnic lines.
Arben Xhaferi, head of the Democratic Party of Albanians, in turn accused Mr. Trajkovski of trying to "create a climate of paranoia."
"Macedonia is a multiethnic society and the state must reflect the character of society," Mr. Xhaferi told reporters in Skopje yesterday.
Mr. Powell told the Senate panel that Western governments were pushing the Macedonian parties hard for a deal, including suggesting unnamed international mediators respected by both sides to help broker a compromise.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the Macedonian leaders were dealing with "very difficult, very sensitive issues."
Mr. Robertson and Mr. Powell both made clear there were no plans for NATO to intervene militarily in Macedonia before a full cease-fire had been worked out.
Said Mr. Powell: "Its a disarmament task in the sense that you are not going out fighting people to disarm them, but you are setting up points where their weapons can be received."
Mr. Robertson told reporters that the NATO force probably would consist of between 3,000 and 5,000 troops, and would not be drawn from the approximately 40,000 troops participating in the neighboring Kosovo peacekeeping mission. The troops would be armed and their mission "time-limited," Mr. Robertson said.
Britain has indicated that it would be willing to supply troops to a Macedonian mission. Mr. Robertson refused to say which countries have made similar offers, but the State Departments Mr. Boucher confirmed yesterday that the United States was not one of them.
The Bush administrations official line is that no U.S. troops have been offered because no formal request has been made for them either from the Macedonian government or from the NATO "force generation" conference that will be held if and when a disarmament mission is dispatched.
The Macedonian government "is not seeking an armed intervention," Mr. Robertson insisted yesterday. Disarming the rebels after a cease-fire "is all we have been asked to do and all that we are willing to do."
But Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat, told Mr. Powell yesterday that a more forceful U.S. military role in Macedonia may be required.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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