- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 27, 2001

The White House said yesterday that President Bush approved the use of U.S. troops to rescue 350 armed Albanian rebels from a suburb of Skopje, where they had come under fire by Macedonian government forces.
After the Americans escorted the ethnic Albanians to a rebel-controlled area of the Black Mountains on Monday, thousands of Serbs — who comprise the majority in Macedonia — rioted in the streets of Skopje.
Furious at the U.S. intervention, the Serbian protesters chanted "Gas chambers for the Albanians" as they stormed the parliament building.
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer and a Pentagon spokesman yesterday vigorously defended the expanded, and apparently temporary, role of American troops in Macedonia's widening civil war. They said the action was requested by NATO Secretary-General George Robertson and approved by U.S. Gen. Joseph Ralston, the European alliance's supreme commander.
"There is a NATO commitment, and the United States is a part of NATO," Mr. Fleischer said, saying the rescue decision "was made locally on the ground."
The spokesmen said the purpose of sending 81 GIs into the village of Aracinovo was to defuse a standoff between the minority Albanian rebels and Macedonian government troops.
The plan was for the Americans, riding in armored Humvees, to escort busloads of Albanians to another town 11 miles away and let government troops then reassert control over Aracinovo. The rebels were told to unload their weapons, which they were allowed to take onboard the buses operated by 20 American contractors.
The convoy completed its mission, but then riots broke out among Serbs protesting the U.S. involvement.
The State Department yesterday cited rising "anti-Western sentiment" and warned Americans not to travel to Macedonia. The travel advisory also suggested that Americans living in the country consider leaving.
Mr. Fleischer said he was not sure whether Mr. Bush was consulted before or after the U.S. troops carried out their mission. The Pentagon said the White House was notified before the mission began.
Mr. Fleischer said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice were also consulted.
The United States has maintained 700 troops in Macedonia at Camp Able Sentry in the town of Skopje. The unit's primary purpose is to support American forces performing peacekeeping operations in neighboring Kosovo.
"The decision was made locally on the ground," said Mr. Fleischer, who referred to the Albanian holdouts as "extremists."
In a separate incident, a U.S. soldier was wounded Monday when the vehicle he and three other officials were riding in came under fire north of Skopje, apparently from Macedonian troops, a Pentagon official said.
The evacuation followed a three-day assault on Aracinovo by government troops that threatened European Union and NATO efforts to negotiate a solution to end the fighting in Macedonia.
Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman, said only U.S. soldiers were used in the evacuation because they were the only NATO troops readily available.
"Speed was an important element of this operation because of the rising tensions and the desire to defuse it as quickly as possible," he said. "We had the forces available and the buses and the drivers for those buses to take immediate action, and that was important. … It seems to have been successful in that regard."
Once the troops completed the escort, they ran up against angry, armed crowds at two checkpoints. Camp Able Sentry sent up a Hunter unmanned aerial vehicle to scout an alternative route without a checkpoint. One was located and the unit returned safely to Skopje.
The 81 Army soldiers completed the escort mission at 8 p.m. local time Monday and returned to the camp at 5 a.m. yesterday. "It's business as usual … at Camp Sentry today," Adm. Quigley said.
He said the soldiers spent the nine hours at the checkpoints and trying to navigate the country's rudimentary system of roads.
Defending the mission, he said, "You're going to have … those individuals and organizations that do not support the action taken. But we think it was the right one, and anything that can be done to defuse that situation and bring about a political solution to the difficulties in that part of the world is a step in the right direction."
He cautioned reporters not to conclude that Monday's action has elevated the American contingent into a new, expanded role in Macedonia, a former Yugoslav republic.
"I would not point to this as a turning the corner and proceeding down a path where we will now continuously provide this level of support," Adm. Quigley said. "I do not look at it that way."

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