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Monday, 20 August, 2001, 14:35 GMT 15:35 UK
Rebels voice peace hopes and fears
British troops arrive at Skopje Airport
Rebels say they will fully co-operate with Nato
By Chris Morris in the ethnic Albanian rebel stronghold of Sipkovica

The mountains of north-western Macedonia are baked by a hazy sun. This is rebel-held territory where the ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army (NLA) is in charge.

Rebel leader Ali Ahmeti, speaking at a press conference in his mountain headquarters, says he is determined to abide by all the conditions of the peace deal signed with the Macedonian Government - including handing over NLA weapons.

But ceasefire violations are continuing, and there are questions over what the rebels expect from the Nato mission.


We have to go into this process with our eyes wide open, and we have to display courage to implement the deal

Rebel leader Ali Ahmeti
Mr Ahmeti says he is relying on international guarantees of protection once the NLA has handed in its weapons.

Dressed in military fatigues and looking calm and confident, Mr Ahmeti promises to co-operate in full with the British-led Nato mission which will collect the weapons.

Having won a promise of political reform, he says there is no reason to fight again.

"We have to go into this process with our eyes wide open, and we have to display courage to implement the deal," he says.

Mr Ahmeti will not be drawn on exactly how many weapons the NLA has.

Peaceful transition

Many Macedonians fear that considerable numbers will be buried in the mountains, in case they are needed again.

But some rebel fighters really do seem to be planning for a peaceful transition.

US Army General Joseph Ralston,
General Ralston: Fact-finding mission
"I used to have a job so it's not such a problem for me," said one rebel, Fatmir.

"I hope that my friends from the NLA will also be able to go back to their old jobs and that the others will also find work across society as the peace agreement is implemented."

But disentangling the rebel movement from villages like Sipkovica will take some time.

In an NLA clinic, packed full of the latest medical supplies, many people like what the rebels have achieved and do not want to let it go - which could prove a problem for Nato.

"You can never rely on the Macedonians," said Rufiye Huseni.

"During the war we were pleased that that the NLA guys were here to protect us. I don't know what it's going to be like in future. The guys who are supposed to protect us now - Nato - will just have to do their best."

Divided town

At the foot of the mountain, in the town of Tetovo, just a few hours after we left, there was a sudden exchange of mortars between government and rebel forces - a serious violation of the ceasefire.

This town is still divided, right on the frontline. Local Albanian civilians fear that if the NLA disarms, and Nato then leaves immediately, they could be the target of reprisals from the Macedonian police.

Macedonian roadblock attempting to cut off Nato supply route
Macedonians accuse Nato of supporting the rebels
"People here now are more scared because here it's a bit tense and people are staying at home," said resident Lirim Niftari.

"Everybody is waiting for better days. Why? [because] Albanians cannot trust the Macedonian police. This is just an accumulation [of mistrust] over many years."

They are chopping wood in the mountains, and stocking up for the winter.

If Nato sticks to its timetable, its troops will not be here by then, and will have been and gone.

But what might follow the initial Nato mission will be critical.

The planned deployment of unarmed monitors could prove sadly insufficient - and Nato may yet have to step into the breach again.


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20 Aug 01 | Europe
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