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Macedonia Marks 10 Years of Independence - 2001-09-08

Macedonia commemorates 10 years of independence Saturday, hoping to avoid a return to war. As NATO continues to collect weapons from ethnic Albanian rebels, peace could be a step closer.

President Boris Trajkovski told a special session of Macedonia's parliament the 10th anniversary of a referendum on independence is a great day in the country's history.

He said the will of the people was the basis of the sovereignty of Macedonia, the only former Yugoslav republic to secede peacefully. But he warned that the insurgency begun six months ago by ethnic Albanian rebels could destroy that accomplishment.

He said, "When we should be seeing the results of our development, our state has become the victim of extremist groups from abroad."

NATO's mission to disarm the rebel National Liberation Army (NLA)resumed Friday, a day after parliament took the first step toward ratification of a peace agreement.

In the frontline town of Radusha, the rebels handed over the first lot of their weapons to NATO. Two hundred guns, along with a Macedonian tank and an armored personnel carrier captured by the guerrillas, were surrendered to British troops.

About 200 NLA fighters also demobilized, changing back into civilian clothes in hopes of going home. However, their commander said just leaving behind their uniforms was no guarantee that they could go back to a normal life.

The biggest problem, he said, is that his former fighters do not feel safe because an expected amnesty has not yet taken effect.

Fearing they could be arrested by police patrols on the roads, some said they would hike overnight through the mountains to get back to their families. Others said they would leave the country for neighboring Kosovo to avoid being captured by the Macedonians.

That will not be easy, the commander said, because NATO peacekeepers are patrolling the frontier to try to block the former rebels from crossing the border.

U.S. forces in Kosovo say they have arrested hundreds of NLA members trying to enter the province illegally in the past month.

Nonetheless, the commander said, the issue would not prompt the NLA to break its promise to disband. He said, "Decisions are decisions, and they have to be respected."