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Wednesday, 22 August, 2001, 11:53 GMT 12:53 UK
Analysis: Nato's Macedonia mission
Parachute regiment in Skopje
UK forces will lead the Macedonia mission
By BBC News Online's Sheila Barter

Thousands of troops from across Europe are moving into Macedonia as the operation to collect rebel weapons swings into effect.

But questions are already being asked over whether the mission can succeed against the unpromising backdrop of a tight deadline, an embittered population, and an already wavering ceasefire.

Nato force - approximate numbers
UK leading - 1,900
France - 530
Italy - 500
Germany - 500
Greece - 350
Netherlands - 250
Canada - 200
Spain, Turkey, Hungary, Norway, Czech Republic, Belgium under 200
US - providing transport
Commander: UK's Brigadier Barney White-Spunner
An advance party of British, French and Czech troops was first in place, working on logistics, signalling, liaison with Macedonian forces and other groundwork plans.

Their numbers are now being rapidly swelled by another 3,000 troops, as soldiers and equipment move into position from bases across Europe.

Once all the troops are in position, the operation will be declared active, and the clock will start ticking on their 30-day mission.

Click here for a map of the area

Under the plan, Nato will set up weapons collection points - possibly as many as 15 - at sites across rebel-held territory.

Rebel fighter wearing Albanian flag
Rebel forces will have to hand over all weapons for destruction
Their locations are still being chosen, but they will be sited across the hilly areas in the north where the rebels have their strongholds.

As rebels lay down their arms, Nato troops will move in to collect them and take them out of the country for destruction.

More than half the final force will be British, with the 16th Air Assault Brigade and the 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, forming the backbone.

Greece, Italy and France will also head battalions, with other Nato troops in their ranks.

Macedonian soldier
Macedonian forces have been involved in clashes since the deal
The UK's Brigadier Barney White-Spunner will head the whole operation on the ground, although ultimate command will rest with Major General Gunnar Lange, a Dane who is Nato's senior military representative in Macedonia.

Nato officials have insisted that, despite fears that the peace deal may be built on shaky foundations, they remain "cautiously optimistic" about the prospects for peace.

When the deal was signed by Macedonia's politicians earlier in August, several conditions were set which had to be fulfilled before Operation Essential Harvest could move from drawing board to reality:

  • The fragile ceasefire had to be judged to be holding. Clashes have continued - but Nato General Joseph Ralston, who visited Macedonia on Monday, has judged that the overall situation is stable enough to risk deployment.

  • Ethnic Albanian rebels had to agree with Nato representatives on the technical arrangements for disarming. This breakthrough was achieved after talks involving Nato envoy Pieter Feith, when the rebels agreed to surrender 2,000 weapons.

  • Macedonian authorities had to agree an amnesty for rebel fighters, and the status of the Nato operation. Both these were accepted by the Macedonian authorities soon after the rebel disarmanent promise.

  • Macedonia's parliament had to ratify the peace deal. This will be done in stages as the weapons are collected.

Despite Nato's push to deploy its troops early, and its optimism, many questions remain over the operation.

Relatives of killed Macedonian soldier
The bloodshed has only heightened the country's tensions
Many observers expect the rebels to hand over only symbolic, older weapons - and keep their best armaments in case they want them again.

Even if they do hand in significant quantities, analysts say replacement weapons are easy to come by across the border in Albania, and in the rest of the region.

Others question how long the shaky ceasefire can hold. Sporadic clashes have continued since the peace deal was signed.

Among ethnic Albanians, there are fears of reprisals from Macedonian forces once Nato troops have been and gone.

And the fact remains that, despite the peace deal, Macedonia's ethnic tensions have only been heightened by the months of unrest.

Even with the deal in the bag and Nato troops on the ground, Macedonia's path back to peace may not be a smooth one - and Nato's Operation Essential Harvest may yet turn into a Mission Impossible.


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"Its not peace yet but it is the first essential steps"

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See also:

12 Aug 01 | Europe
Macedonia urges Nato action
10 Aug 01 | Europe
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06 Aug 01 | Europe
Nato ready for Macedonia action
20 Mar 01 | Europe
The military balance
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