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Tuesday, 21 August, 2001, 07:02 GMT 08:02 UK
Nato weighs up Macedonia mission
British liaison officer Capt Gareth Hicks (C) meets ethnic Albanian rebels
Nato liaison officers are already talking to rebels
A senior Nato commander is set to meet the alliance's leaders to advise them whether Nato should give the go-ahead for a full-scale mission to disarm ethnic Albanian rebels in Macedonia.

General Joseph Ralston is preparing his report after making a whistle-stop tour of the ex-Yugoslav republic on Monday.

Earlier on Monday, an advance unit of British soldiers arrived in Macedonia and met rebel commanders to discuss how the weapons would be collected.

Peace accord's key points
Amends constitution to make country civic society of all ethnic groups, not just Macedonians
Makes Albanian second official language in some areas
More ethnic Albanians in police and other institutions
Allows degree of self-rule in Albanian -dominated areas
Census to be held to establish country's exact ethnic mix ahead of elections
Nato has said it will send a further 3,500 troops on a 30-day operation once it is confident a shaky ceasefire between the rebels and government forces has taken hold.

General Ralston held talks with Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski and other government ministers and met Nato officials already in Macedonia.

He will take his findings back to Nato's 19-member North Atlantic Council.

"Then it will be up to the nations of Nato as to what to decide," General Ralston said at the end of his visit.

The BBC's Chris Morris in Skopje says it is assumed there that the disarmament mission will go ahead, despite sporadic violations of a ceasefire.

Clashes

Hours before General Ralston arrived, rebels clashed with government troops near the village of Poroj, near the northern town of Tetovo, although observers say the level of clashes has lessened in recent days.

Ralston
General Joseph Ralston: Up to Nato nations
Nato ambassadors in Brussels have been weighing up the risks of moving quickly into an unstable country against the dangers of a further deterioration in the situation while they wait.

If the advance guard decide that conditions are not appropriate, the Nato mission will be abandoned and the rest of the troops will not be sent.

Correspondents say nobody expects the rebels to surrender all their guns, but they will need to give up several thousand weapons for it to be a meaningful gesture.

The plan is that the rebels will collect their own weapons and deposit them at pre-arranged collection sites.

Nato troops will then move in, seal the area, pick up the guns for destruction in a third country and leave.

Disarming the rebels

Teams from the 400-strong British-led advance guard on Monday went into the rebel-held village of Nikustak, about 16 km (10 miles) north-east of the Macedonian capital Skopje, where they made contact with local rebel leaders.

Macedonia protester
Macedonian villagers are mistrustful of Nato's involvement
They discussed details of how the disarmament mission, dubbed Operation Essential Harvest, would work.

An ethnic Albanian rebel leader, known as Commander Adashi, told the troops:

"I believe there will be no problems. We will co-operate and guarantee your security on our side. But I can't say for the other side."

The Macedonian army said on Monday it was ready to withdraw its troops from the areas where rebel weapons would be collected.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Paul Adams
"The scene is almost set for Operation Essential Harvest to begin"
Bob Stewart, the former UN Commander in Bosnia
says Nato's supreme Commander will have a clear idea of his next move
The BBC's Brian Hanrahan
"There has been one incident overnight"
Francois Stann, International Red Cross Committee
"We are assisting around 60,000 internally displaced people"

Key stories

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See also:

17 Aug 01 | Europe
Macedonia mission 'too short'
16 Aug 01 | Europe
Macedonia: The mission
06 Aug 01 | Europe
Nato ready for Macedonia action
20 Mar 01 | Europe
The military balance
02 May 00 | Europe
Profile: General Joseph Ralston
20 Aug 01 | Europe
Nato ready for Macedonia action
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