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British Troops Head for Macedonia - 2001-08-16

With a fragile cease-fire holding in Macedonia, 400 British rapid-reaction troops are packing their bags. They are scheduled to begin leaving Friday to spearhead a NATO peace mission to the troubled Balkan country.

The initial mission of the British contingent will be to establish a command and control center from where they can monitor the cease-fire between Macedonian forces and ethnic-Albanian separatists.

If the truce holds, then NATO will send in a larger force of 3,500 troops whose primary job will be to collect rebel arms at predetermined sites. Under the plan, NATO soldiers will seal an area, pick up weapons and then move on.

The operation, dubbed "Essential Harvest," is expected to last for just 30 days. Many defense analysts, like Francis Tusa, believe that is very optimistic. "Balkan cynics would say it is almost inevitable that mission creep (going into a country for one reason and staying there for another) is almost certain in Macedonia," said Mr. Tusa. "Look at the number of times mission creep occurred in Bosnia, leading to the present situation and the number of times various European and American populous' were told, 'do not worry, we are there for only six months and then we are leaving."

The program which has the backing of all NATO alliance members has very narrowly defined goals. In addition to the relatively short duration of the mission, the troops will only be lightly armed. They will not be equipped for any wider peacekeeping role in the region.

Ethnic Albanian gunmen have battled Macedonian government forces for six months. The insurgents agreed to disarm earlier this week after political leaders signed an accord giving greater rights to Macedonia's ethnic-Albanian minority.

The Macedonian government has agreed that ethnic Albanian separatists who keep their promise to disarm will receive an amnesty a key precondition NATO required before agreeing in principle to send in the weapons collection force.