No formal concord on Macedonia arms deal

 

Nato said yesterday it would collect 3,300 weapons from ethnic Albanian guerrillas under a peace plan in Macedonia, despite government concern that the alliance has dangerously underestimated the rebel arsenal.

"There is no formal agreement on these figures," said Maj-Gen Gunnar Lange, commander of NATO troops assigned to disarm the rebels, referring to tension with the government over the scope of the mission.

Government objections to NATO's assessment of guerrilla fire-power delayed a formal announcement of the disarmament target by two days, raising doubts on whether "Operation Essential Harvest" would swing into action today as planned.

Gen Lange said the operation would now proceed on time. He said the rebels had agreed to hand over more than 2,950 assault rifles, 130 mortars and anti-tank weapons, 210 machine guns and six air-defence systems, along with two tanks and two armoured personnel carriers captured from the Macedonian army.

More than 600 mines and grenades, 1,100 mortar rounds and 110,000 small-arms rounds would also be turned in, he said.

"The numbers are very close to our own estimates as to what we believe they have, but it is their figure and of course we cannot verify it," the Danish general said.

"We do believe, however, that once (the weapons are) collected and destroyed, the so-called NLA (National Liberation Army) will effectively have been disarmed . . . and disbanded."

Success may hinge on whether NATO can collect an arsenal impressive enough to persuade the nationalist-led parliament not to renege on commitments to enact constitutional changes improving the rights of Albanians.

Parliament convenes on Friday, but the front lines are still prone to violence, including the demolition yesterday of a Macedonian motel by suspected Albanian extremists that killed two people. The government suspects the guerrillas will be able to hide weapons or replenish their arsenal with impunity through smuggling from Kosovo.

The rebels fear being helpless against security forces itching for revenge after failing to contain the insurgency, and they want NATO troops to stay and police a "Green Line" - something NATO has ruled out.

Western diplomats had indicated earlier that the Macedonian army was being slow to withdraw artillery and tanks from front lines to help defuse tension.

A senior government official said later that "misunderstandings have been cleared up" and that NATO arms collectors could start work on Tuesday at the latest - though Skopje believed NATO had seriously underestimated the arsenal targeted for removal.

The Prime Minister, Mr Ljubco Georgievski, said NATO's widely reported estimate of somewhat over 3,000 guerrilla weapons was "ridiculous and humiliating" to Macedonia.

NATO has given its troops exactly 30 days to gather guerrilla arms and ammunition surrendered voluntarily. It wants to meet the first third of its arms target by Friday's session of parliament, under a scheme twinning disarmament and legislation in three phases.

In yesterday's attack, the Brioni motel in rebel-dominated territory 50 km west of Skopje blew up and the bodies of two men were taken from the rubble. The state news agency MIA said the motel had been mined and it blamed "Albanian terrorists".

Last night, a bomb planted in a rubbish bin exploded in a northern Skopje suburb but no one was injured. Witnesses said the blast had blown out windows in a shopping centre.

The senior NATO officer conceded it would be impossible to collect all weapons available to the NLA, given porous borders with Kosovo and Albania and inveterate smuggling in the mafia-ridden economies of the Balkans.