The United Nations refugee agency is calling for the deployment of a security force in Macedonia before NATO forces leave the country. The UNHCR says an international security force is needed to ensure refugees and displaced people are able to return to their homes in safety.
By the middle of next week, NATO is scheduled to complete its mission to collect arms from the ethnic-Albanian rebels in Macedonia. Once their mission ends, most of the more than 4,000 NATO troops now in the country are due to leave. But the U.N. refugee agency is concerned about what will happen after the troops withdraw.
Refugee agency officials acknowledge that NATO is planning to leave a small force in Macedonia, and they say these soldiers will have a specific mission: to protect international monitors overseeing the peace process. UNHCR spokesman Kris Janowski says this is not good enough because it does not take into account the civilian population.
He says if there is no force to protect the civilians, many refugees and internally displaced people will be reluctant to go back to their homes. "We still have about 76,000 people displaced within the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia," he said. "Sixty percent of them are ethnic Macedonians and many of them come from traditionally ethnic-Albanian populated areas where they would probably feel ill at ease without some international presence whose job it is to, not just to look after an international presence, but to look after them."
Over the past two weeks, more than 12,000 ethnic Albanian refugees who had gone to neighboring Kosovo to escape the fighting have been heading back to Macedonia, most of them to the largely ethnic Albanian areas where they feel safe.
Since June, more than 52,000 refugees have returned to Macedonia but nearly 30,000 still remain in Kosovo. Mr. Janowski says the security force is needed to prevent a repeat of what happened after the wars in Kosovo and Bosnia, when many of the refugees from those wars were attacked when they tried to return to their homes. "We are not saying that we need some sort of international security presence forever," said Kris Janowski. "We are saying that it should be temporary, but temporary as it may be, it is really vital to instill some trust in the civilian population and basically re-piece that country together in ethnic terms."
Mr. Janowski says an international security force is necessary to avoid further bloodshed and displacement. He says the international community must act now to ensure Macedonia stays on the road to peace.