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Police Restructuring, Return of Refugees Key to Macedonia Peace - 2001-09-19

In Macedonia, much remains to be done to implement last month's peace agreement between the government and ethnic Albanians. After NATO's weapons collection mission is over September 26, attention will focus on restructuring the police and making sure that people displaced by seven months of conflict return home.

The United Nations refugee agency says more than 100,000 people are still displaced by the Macedonian conflict. About half of them are ethnic-Albanians.

Ed Joseph is a Balkans expert for the International Crisis Group, a research agency based in Brussels. Mr. Joseph says that if the refugees peacefully get back into their homes in Albanian-populated areas, it will be a powerful signal that the peace agreement is real, and not a disguised attempt to partition Macedonia along ethnic lines.

"The way to challenge that is to get Macedonian displaced persons back to their homes fast - not like in Bosnia where it is taking forever and a day," he says. "But swiftly, get them back to their homes. And this will be a signal to everyone, Macedonian and Albanian alike, and to the regional neighbors, that this country is not on the verge of partition."

Here in mountainous northwestern Macedonia near the city of Tetovo, up to 70 percent of the population is ethnic-Albanian.

Macedonians in this region feel insecure, aware that outside the towns, Albanian insurgents hold the upper-hand militarily. But local police are Macedonian-controlled and this, in turn, makes local ethnic-Albanians insecure.

Both sides welcome the 4,500 NATO troops currently in Macedonia. Neither group is eager for NATO troops to leave.

In Gostivar, a mainly ethnic-Albanian town south of Tetovo, Salamani Gatmir is 24-year-old ethnic-Albanian who manages a music and video store in the town center. A visiting reporter asks him what he thinks of the peace agreement, which promises expanded rights for ethnic-Albanians. "I feel good," he says. "All Albanian people here is for that. We don't want other things. We just want our rights."

More than anything, Mr. Gatmir insists that NATO forces remain in large numbers in western Macedonia long after the end of September. Without NATO, Mr. Gatmir fears retaliation from the Macedonian police. He says, "If NATO leaves here, they [Macedonian police] will attack. One by one they will attack. They came to the house at 1 a.m., 2 a.m. and just ... how do you say? ... just took men out of the house. You're terrorists, they say. And then they don't exist any more."

Ed Joseph of the International Crisis Group complains that the peace agreement is moving too slowly through the Macedonian parliament. He also worries that as yet, there has been no action to dispatch to Macedonia about 50 to 80 international police specialists who would be assigned to local authorities.