- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 30, 2001

"Albanians to the gas chambers!" was the chant of Macedonian protesters in the crowd as armed police broke into the parliament building in the capital on Monday. NATO had just bused the ethnic Albanian guerrillas from Aracinovo, a village near Skopje, where most of the clashes between the rebels and Macedonian forces had taken place. NATO sent trucks for the rebels' arms, and dropped the guerrillas and their weapons off about seven miles away at another Macedonian village. There, the fighting continued. In Skopje, thousands of Macedonians took to the streets, and no wonder.

Their multi-party government had asked NATO to come in and disarm the rebels, who had cut off water supplies and led an armed resistance against Macedonian security forces, but NATO had instead convinced the parties that an "evacuation" of the rebels was the solution. Maybe, for about the length of time it took the buses to drive seven miles. But the guerrillas are still within Macedonia and heavy clashes are continuing. Most disturbing is what the rebels are doing to their own people. The day after the NATO exercise on Monday, 1,800 ethnic Albanians in Macedonia were forced to flee from the violence to Kosovo. Thus far, 71,370 of them from Macedonia, where ethnic Albanians make up one-third of the population, have been forced to become refugees and flee to Kosovo since February.

The fact that U.S. troops from the Kosovo peacekeeping force helped do the transporting of the rebels and their arms fueled Macedonian skepticism of a force that they have seen as partisan since the United States defended the rebels in the Kosovo war. That skepticism might change once the rebels are disarmed, which it still intends to do eventually. NATO gave final approval yesterday for a 3,000-strong force to disarm the guerrillas and destroy their weapons, but only once a cease-fire and political settlement is reached. The force would have 30 days to complete the task.

If the rebels are confused as to exactly what NATO's policy toward them is, they have every right to be. NATO must send a consistent message that violence is unacceptable not because of the outcry by Macedonian citizens this week, for it was Skopje that gave NATO the approval to go ahead with the evacuation. NATO should reconsider its tact for the sake of long term peace in the Balkans.

President Bush has taken a first step toward curbing the conflict in the long-term by issuing an executive order forbidding Americans from financing the rebels. Before the NATO force embarks on a new mission though, it must examine how to handle the refugee problem and where the disarming will take place. It should also consider how to contain arms trafficking and rebel movement between Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia.

Ethnic Albanian civilians, who are now once again being made refugees by their own people, deserve protection. Their defense will not be sustainable if NATO does not send the rebels the consistent message that an armed resistance is an unacceptable medium to use in obtaining greater political, legal, educational and territorial rights.

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