- The Washington Times - Friday, June 22, 2001

The United States is not ready to commit troops to a Macedonian disarmament mission, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday, even as several NATO allies announced they were willing to contribute.

"It has not got to the point where we need to discuss actual U.S. participation," Mr. Powell said, emerging from a meeting yesterday with NATO Secretary-General George Robertson at the State Department.

Ethnic Albanian armed groups, operating as the "National Liberation Army," have waged a tenacious guerrilla war with government security forces since seizing towns in predominantly Albanian regions in the country´s mountainous north in early February.

Talks on a power-sharing deal between Macedonia´s leading Slav and ethnic Albanian parties nearly collapsed on Wednesday, but they have resumed under heavy pressure from Western governments fearful that failure could spark a new round of violence in the Balkans.

Mr. Robertson and Mr. Powell have made it clear that a political deal and a disarmament agreement had to be in place before the NATO force would be deployed.

The governments of France, Greece, Germany, Spain and the Czech Republic yesterday indicated they were prepared to contribute forces to the proposed Macedonia mission.

In an about-face, Russia said yesterday it also would be ready to participate, having previously criticized the NATO-led Kfor mission´s inability to control ethnic Albanian rebel activity across Macedonia´s border in Kosovo and southern Serbia.

"If we are invited, and invited as equal partners, I very much think it is possible," Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov told the Interfax news agency.

But he added that any disarmament of the rebels in Macedonia should be done in tandem with dealing forcefully with ethnic Albanian armed groups in Kosovo.

While continuing to support the overall mission, Mr. Powell yesterday hinted that the United States may stop short of contributing troops to the force. Reports have said the U.S. role could be limited to supplying communications and logistics support for the NATO brigade.

"There are many ways to make a contribution," Mr. Powell told reporters yesterday.

European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana arrived in Skopje yesterday to urge a political deal between the leading Macedonian Slav and ethnic Albanian parties. The parties have resumed stalled talks after a late-night meeting on Wednesday with ambassadors from NATO countries, including Britain and the United States.

Both Mr. Robertson and Mr. Powell have stressed that the alliance is not prepared to engage in offensive military actions in Macedonia, despite widespread fears that a civil war there could lead to wider conflict and instability in the Balkans.

A truce agreed upon 10 days ago is due to expire early next week and is unlikely to be renewed unless politicians strike a deal.

Mr. Robertson told reporters on Wednesday that a NATO force of between 3,000 and 5,000 armed troops, perhaps supplemented by non-NATO forces, would go into Macedonia only under "benign conditions": to oversee a disarmament of ethnic Albanian guerrillas after a long-term power-sharing deal had been reached and ratified by all sides.

Once seen as a model of interethnic cooperation in a bitterly divided region, Macedonia´s governing coalition of leading Slav and Albanian parties has been strained badly by the five months of fighting. Ethnic Albanians make up between one-quarter and one-third of the population, and they have been pressing for more rights including an Albanian vice president and official recognition of their language in heated talks with the larger Macedonian Slav parties.

With political talks dragging on, the rhetoric from Western leaders has grown more urgent.

Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana, the current head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, told an OSCE gathering in Vienna, Austria, yesterday, "This weekend is decisive."

"The news that the political process has collapsed is deeply worrying," Mr. Geoana said.

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