NATO forces are nearing the end of their mission to collect weapons from ethnic-Albanian rebels, but it now appears that not all NATO forces will be leaving Macedonia when the mission ends. The Macedonian government says it is willing to let some forces remain in the country after the weapons are collected.
NATO troops are ready to begin the third and final phase of collecting weapons voluntarily handed over by ethnic-Albanian rebels. The troops have already collected two-thirds of the 3,300 weapons the rebels agreed to hand over. The alliance has a self-imposed deadline of September 26 for collecting the weapons. After that date, NATO was supposed to withdraw its troops.
Until now, the Macedonian government had been saying there was no need for NATO forces to remain in the country. But late Monday, the government in Skopje reversed course and said it is willing to have a small NATO force remain in the country to provide protection to civilian ceasefire monitors.
NATO spokesman Mark Laity praises the Macedonian government's decision. "The protection of international monitors needs to be taken very seriously," he said. "And an international security presence to protect those monitors, in addition to the protection of the Macedonian security forces, is a constructive proposal."
NATO forces arrived in Macedonia after an agreement reached last month that ended months of fighting between Macedonian forces and the Albanian National Liberation Army. The agreement called for the rebels to disarm in return for constitutional reforms that enhance the status of Macedonia's Albanian minority.
But the Macedonian parliament has been slow to enact the reforms. It is currently distracted by a proposal to hold a national referendum on the agreement that led to the end of fighting between government and rebel forces. If the parliament does call for a referendum to be held, diplomats say the entire peace process could unravel.