- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 22, 2001

SKOPJE, Macedonia — With his miniature spy planes at 16,000 feet and guided by remote control, U.S. Army Capt. Daniel Dittenber's pilots camped on the ground aren't exactly in any danger.
That's just the way the Bush administration likes it. Putting hardware instead of humans into harm's way is especially appealing to Washington as the United States joins NATO's newest foray into the Balkans, a mission to disarm ethnic Albanian rebels in Macedonia.
NATO's ruling council was expected to approve that mission today and clear the way for the full deployment of 3,500 troops after the alliance's supreme commander in Europe recommended it yesterday during a session in Brussels.
The mission comes at a time when the Bush administration is trying to get American troops out of the Balkans, never mind sending more in. So U.S. troops will play a behind-the-scenes role.
Only several hundred Americans will participate, focusing on limited logistical duties. Capt. Dittenber, a 26-year-old officer from Turner, Mich., says the photographs his unit's reconnaissance aircraft will take should play an important part in the risky mission.
"We keep an eye out for them. We make it possible for them to see the bad guy around the corner," he said.
Unlike the NATO-led mission in Kosovo — where the U.S. military charged in on the first wave and settled in so firmly that its massive base, Camp Bondsteel, has been nicknamed the Balkan Battlestar Galactica — Americans are taking a back seat this time.
Roughly 9,000 Americans remain on patrol in Europe's most volatile region — 500 in Macedonia, 5,000 in Kosovo and 3,500 in Bosnia-Herzegovina — with no end in sight.
The Bush administration has made no secret of its desire to disengage from the Balkans, although it has promised not to make any dramatic troop reductions without consulting with its European allies.
It will be the Europeans who will pick up rebel weapons at collection sites scattered across rugged mountain territory where firefights have raged since the insurgents took up arms six months ago, saying they were fighting for more rights for Macedonia's minority ethnic Albanians. After a peace deal signed last week expanded those rights, the rebels say they're prepared to hand in their weapons.
NATO has said it will deploy the full force only when it is confident that the cease-fire is viable and lasting. Gen. Joseph Ralston, speaking to the North Atlantic Council yesterday, said waiting would be riskier than deploying now.
Although violence in the country has dramatically subsided, an explosion early yesterday rocked an Orthodox Christian monastery in the town of Lesok outside Tetovo, Macedonia's second-largest city.
A church at the monastery complex, Sveti Atanasi, crumpled behind its twin-towered facade. Blue-toned frescoes of saints lay in heaps of rubble, exposed to the elements for the first time in decades.
Macedonia's culture minister, Ganka Samoilova-Cvetanovska, blamed the rebels, who started assaults on the village last month. The rebels denied responsibility.
"Attacks on places of worship are totally unacceptable and undermine the efforts of all those who are striving to restore peace and stability," NATO Secretary-General George Robertson said in a statement.


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