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Paras to lead Macedonia peace force.


By Michael Smith, Defence Correspondent and Christian Jennings in Skopje

BRITAIN will supply a substantial proportion of a Nato stabilisation force that will enter Macedonia to disarm the ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army, defence sources said yesterday.

Although officials in Skopje said the Parachute Regiment was expected to lead the British contingent in a disarmament force expected to number 5,000, British sources suggested that Royal Marines would be used.

Lord Robertson, Nato Secretary-General, said the force would not go into Macedonia until there was agreement between the country's ethnic Albanians and Slavs.

He said: "It will happen when, and only when, there is a durable ceasefire and an agreement between all of the parties in the [Macedonian government] coalition and indeed an agreement by the armed extremists that they will proceed toward disarmament. This is not an armed intervention. It will be a force appropriate to the task in benign conditions."

With President Boris Trajkovski refusing to negotiate with the rebels and the breakdown of peace talks between the Slav and Albanian political parties yesterday, the prospect of an imminent deployment seemed unlikely.

Although British officials said they wanted to be sure that there was agreement on all sides as to what the force should do before sending troops in, they did not totally rule out intervention. "If they are close to a settlement and there is a risk of new instability, it could be a situation in which Nato should at least look at whether they should put a force in to help stabilise and to collect weapons," said one.

If peace talks were successful, officials said, the force could go to Macedonia within three weeks. Opinions on the size and make-up of the force required differed sharply yesterday. Germany has been trying to assemble a multi-national stabilisation force of up to 10,000 troops for the past week but has been severely hampered by American reluctance to take part.

Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, appeared to backtrack yesterday when he said that the 700 US troops already in Macedonia providing logistical support for Kfor could take part in any disarmament operation. In an apparent attempt to dispel domestic fears that US troops might be dragged into a fresh Balkan conflict, Gen Powell said the Nato forces might set up "disarmament points" where rebels could hand in their weapons.

He said: "It's a disarmament task in a sense that you are not going out fighting people to disarm them but you are setting up points where their weapons can be received." His remarks were the closest anyone has come to explaining how the force might work. Britain, France and Germany will supply most of the troops who will take part in the process. Greece, Spain and Italy have also offered to take part.

Over the weekend, Britain made contingency plans to send anything from a small battle group of 1,000 troops to a cut-down brigade of up to 2,500 men. Officials said the plans were not yet decided but the SAS is understood to be already active on the border between Kosovo and Macedonia, sealing it off to prevent the Albanian rebels from bringing in supplies and reinforcements.

Nato, European Union and other governments continued to put pressure on the Macedonian government yesterday to reach a political solution designed to avoid full-scale civil war. But the government's repeated insistence that that it will not talk with the rebels means that the chances of a negotiated disarmament programme are slim.

The breakdown of talks coincided with fresh outbreaks of fighting early yesterday between rebels and government forces around the rebel-held town of Aracinovo, three miles from Skopje. There were also clashes around Slupcane, which has been under constant government tank and artillery fire for six weeks.

Yesterday, the Albanian political parties appealed for international mediation. Aziz Pollozhani, deputy president of the PDP, one of two parties representing the ethnic Albanian minority, said the Macedonian parties had dismissed their proposals for constitutional changes to give the Albanian minority more rights. Mr Trajkovski accused the PDP and the other Albanian party, the DPA, of changing their position and aiming to split Macedonia along ethnic lines.

U.S. Backs NATO Troops in Macedonia.


.c The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Bush administration backs NATO on sending peacekeeping troops to Macedonia to help disarm ethnic Albanian militants and is weighing ways to participate, Secretary of State Colin Powell said Thursday.

After a meeting with Lord Robertson, the military alliance's secretary-general, Powell said that while weighing options ``we have not got to the point of actual U.S. participation in such an effort.''

Other NATO allies have made preliminary commitments. Powell said ``there are many ways in which we can make a contribution.'' But, ``it has not gone any further than that in terms of our deliberations.''

In Skopje, meanwhile, Macedonia's ethnic Albanians and Slavs restarted stalled talks that could clear the way for NATO troops to help disarm rebels in the Balkan country and prevent a full-scale war.

Javier Solana, a former NATO secretary-general, made an unscheduled stop in Skopje on his way to the Mideast a day after President Boris Trajkovski declared negotiations on his peace plan at an impasse.

Powell said he and Robertson ``are hopeful a political process will start to pick up some speed and momentum and move forward.''

Asked if the United States would contribute troops to a peacekeeping operation in the event of a truce, Powell signaled a probable positive response. ``We were part of the consensus that said it was appropriate for NATO military authorities to come up with a conceptual plan for putting troops in if a political arrangement came into being that would allow weapons to be turned in and picked up.''

With nearly 10,000 U.S. troops in the Balkans and a newly made promise to the allies to stay the course, President Bush's policy is evolving into one of maintaining a united allied front in the countries created by the breakup of Yugoslavia.

``We're involved militarily. We are involved politically. We're involved diplomatically,'' Powell told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday.

And White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush supports NATO's decision to help Macedonia bring about disarmament and expressed the support last week during meetings with allied leaders in Belgium.

``We hope that the political parties in Skopje can reach an agreement quickly,'' Fleischer said.

There already are 700 U.S. troops in Macedonia, ``and they at some point could become part of that process,'' Powell said Wednesday. Most are there to provide logistical support for 5,400 U.S. peacekeeping troops in neighboring Kosovo, the mostly ethnic Albanian province of Serbia.

The United States also has 3,800 peacekeepers in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The Bush administration's stand on sending U.S. troops to the Balkans and keeping those sent there by former President Clinton has been uneven.

During the presidential campaign, adviser Condoleezza Rice said the U.S. peacekeeping role should be reconsidered. Powell has insisted the U.S. troops would stay the course with the NATO allies, but the Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld recently said peacekeeping operations in the Balkans and the Middle East were straining U.S. resources.

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