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NATO OKs Macedonia Mission ‘Operation Essential Harvest’ to Disarm Albanian Rebels

By Keith B. Richburg
THE WASHINGTON POST -- PARIS -- The supreme NATO commander, Gen. Joseph Ralston, gave the go-ahead for a delicate alliance mission to Macedonia Tuesday, setting the stage for formal approval of NATO’s latest involvement in the volatile Balkans region.

At a closed-door meeting at alliance headquarters in Brussels, Ralston briefed ambassadors from NATO’s 19 member countries on the results of his brief fact-finding trip earlier this week to Macedonia. Diplomats said Ralston and NATO Secretary-General George Robertson pushed for the British-led mission, Operation Essential Harvest, to begin quickly, warning that a delay might allow a fragile ceasefire to unravel.

After consulting overnight with their governments, the NATO ambassadors were expected to give final approval Wednesday.

An advance team of NATO troops has been on the ground in Macedonia since the weekend, mainly from Britain’s 16th Air Assault Brigade, but also including French and Czech troops. If the North Atlantic Council -- the NATO ambassadors in Brussels acting as the alliance’s decision-making body -- gives the ok as expected, the main force of 3,500 troops could begin deploying this week.

The NATO forces will also include a small U.S. component, limited to logistics and intelligence and likely to consist mainly of troops already in Macedonia to support the NATO peacekeeping force in neighboring Kosovo.

Unlike the open-ended peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, the new NATO force in Macedonia will have a carefully circumscribed assignment. The troops have been ordered only to gather up weapons from ethnic Albanian rebels, who have risen up against the Slavic-dominated government in Skopje but who signed a cease-fire Aug. 12 and agreed to disarm.

But if the NATO diplomats needed any reminder of the fragility of the truce -- and the potential danger NATO troops face in this latest Balkan venture -- it came in the early morning hours when an explosion damaged a church inside a 13th century Orthodox Serb monastery in Lesok, just outside the Macedonian town of Tetovo. The Macedonian government immediately blamed the attack on the ethnic Albanian rebels, who officials said were trying to scuttle the ceasefire and enrage the Slavic Macedonian majority in advance of the NATO deployment.

However, the Reuters news agency, reporting from Macedonia, quoted an ethnic Albanian commander from the rebel National Liberation Army (NLA) as denying his group was involved in the blast, which destroyed the church altar and left the nave a pile of debris.