- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 16, 2001

The Europeans are taking the initiative to disarm ethnic Albanian rebels who have been clashing with Macedonian forces for six months. The advance team of around 400 British troops, which is to prepare the way for a force of 3,500 troops, are expected to be in the Macedonian capital of Skopje by Friday. The decision yesterday by NATO ambassadors to approve the force is a positive step for Europe, which has been struggling to find its role as negotiator or peacekeeper in the increasing violence in the Balkans.
Unlike its deployments during the Kosovo war, NATO has done its homework ahead of time. It has an entry and exit plan, and it has set preconditions for its involvement. The 3,500-strong force would have 15 days to deploy within the region, 30 days to collect the arms from the rebels, and 15 days to leave. This time, Americans will be providing command and control, communications, medical and logistics support mostly using the 800 troops already deployed in Macedonia.
Two of NATO's preconditions to the full deployment have now been met: Macedonia's four squabbling Slav and ethnic Albanian parties signed an agreement to clear up the conflict over rights for ethnic Albanians, and the guerrillas have agreed to voluntarily disarm. The paramilitaries' move came after Macedonia agreed to give amnesty to the guerrillas as long as they gave up their weapons freely and had not committed war crimes. A third precondition has yet to be fulfilled, that the cease-fire which was re-established Sunday actually holds. Though a Macedonian army spokesman initially reported a lull in the fighting Wednesday, the rebels were soon back to beating Macedonian villagers and clashing with Macedonian security forces.
Fifteen NATO experts will determine over the next few days if the situation on the ground is stable enough for the additional troops to deploy. If not, the European soldiers from Germany, Greece, Italy, Britain, Hungary, France, Norway, Spain, Turkey, the Czech Republic and Denmark will not deploy. NATO countries are right to be cautious before entering into this volatile situation.
While Europe has cautiously been considering its own role, the Americans have already been forcefully disarming rebels on the border between Macedonia and Kosovo at a cost. It has meant injured U.S. soldiers, violence by the Macedonian people who mistakenly believe the United States is the rebels' friend and an attack on the American embassy in Skopje.
The European force will have the advantage that the agreements made by politicians and paramilitaries should make their work less dangerous than that of the American GIs has been. Once deployed, the force must ensure that its efforts are as comprehensive as possible within the 30-day collection period. Guerrillas only want to rid themselves of 2,000 weapons total, while Macedonian officials say a force of 7,000 to 8,000 rebels must turn over an equal number of arms.
Europe has an historic opportunity to define its role in NATO not just as the follower of American initiatives, but as an active leader. Macedonia could be an important test case for the new NATO.

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