NATO Agrees to a Third Operation in the Balkans ; Yesterday, NATO Leaders Began to Dispatch 3,500 Troops to Macedonia to Disarm Rebels

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Twice in the past six years NATO has sent Western troops into the former Yugoslavia on open-ended missions to restore peace between ethnic factions.

And as NATO leaders agreed yesterday to dispatch a third Balkan mission - to disarm ethnic Albanian rebels in Macedonia - many observers doubted whether the 30-day deployment would be enough to defuse the volatile situation that is threatening to descend into all-out war.

"There is a big mismatch between what needs to be done and the resources NATO has set aside to do it," says Nadege Ragaru, a Balkans expert with the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Relations. "The deployment is not realistic."

NATO hopes that this time, by acting speedily, it can limit its engagement in Macedonia. Whereas in Bosnia, Western forces intervened only after years of inter-ethnic fighting, and in Kosovo they actually took part in the conflict, the Macedonian operation is designed to forestall a war.

On the face of it, Operation Essential Harvest is a simple mission. A 3,500-man task force, made up largely of British, French, and Czech troops, will spend a month collecting the weapons that the ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army (NLA) willingly gives up.

Giving up arms

NLA leader Ali Ahmeti has pledged that his men will disarm, as part of a deal between ethnic Macedonian and ethnic Albanian political leaders last week - brokered by US and European mediators - that gives the Albanian minority greater political and social rights.

But in the current atmosphere of ethnic mistrust, nobody expects the NLA to give up all its weapons, and arguments have already started over how many guns the rebels possess and how many they should hand over.

Rebel leaders say their men have around 2,500 small arms. The Macedonian Interior Ministry said yesterday the figure was closer to 60,000.

In reality, suggests Nicholas Whyte, a Balkans analyst with the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies, "disarmament is of purely symbolic importance - it just indicates the guerrillas' willingness to take the political process seriously. …

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