Tension mounting as NATO begins collecting guns

Times Staff Writer

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization collected its first batch of weapons from ethnic Albanian guerrillas Monday, even as it suffered its mission's first fatality when a British soldier was killed in an attack by Macedonian youths.

The soldier, Ian Collins, 22, died early Monday after being hit by a heavy object -- possibly a block of concrete. Collins, who died on the first day of the alliance's weapons-collection operation in Macedonia, became one of the few NATO soldiers to die in the Balkans in a hostile act.

The fatal attack occurred against an increasingly antagonistic backdrop for the NATO operation, which gathered roughly 400 weapons Monday from the guerrillas, who say they are fighting for more rights for the country's sizable ethnic Albanian minority.

Instead of the cease-fire and diminution of hostilities that international officials had predicted would accompany the NATO deployment, the sense of tension and danger seemed to be on the rise. Three bombs have gone off in this capital city in the past 24 hours, and over the weekend two Macedonians were killed in the bombing of a popular country restaurant.

Macedonian politicians lambasted NATO officials for the small number of weapons they aim to collect from the heavily armed guerrillas, and public opinion among Macedonians appeared to be hardening against the NATO mission.

This stage of NATO's operation is critical, because by week's end, Macedonia's parliament is expected to make an initial decision about whether to move forward with the constitutional changes required to turn a peace deal reached earlier this month into law.

If lawmakers remain skeptical about the number of weapons NATO has collected, and if the Macedonian public's views of NATO are negative, it will be difficult to win support for pushing through the changes, which would raise the status of the Albanian language and guarantee that more ethnic Albanians are added to the country's police force.

Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski, who has advocated allowing the Macedonian military to take on the rebels, charged Monday that NATO is "playing with feelings of all honorable Macedonians."

"If (NATO forces) ... do not manage to implement the peace plan of President (Boris) Trajkovski, in that case we would have no other choice but to take the destiny of Macedonia into our own hands," he said.

The country's largest-circulation independent paper charged Tuesday that the arms NATO had collected are "museum pieces," meaning that the guns were old ones rather than the newer and more lethal weaponry known to be in the hands of the rebels.

But British Maj. Alex Dick, a spokesman for the operation, dubbed "Essential Harvest," said, "Although there was some old equipment, there was some new equipment" among the weapons handed in Monday by the guerrillas, who have taken up arms against Macedonian government forces for the past seven months.

NATO declared that its first day of weapons collection was a success. NATO helicopters swooped into Otjla, a village about 20 miles from Skopje in the hilly terrain of northern Macedonia where most of the guerrilla strongholds are located.

NATO soldiers sat at rows of trestle tables in a farm warehouse registering the weapons as they were handed in.

They collected about 300 assault rifles, including Kalashnikovs, along with 50 anti-personnel mines, 20 anti-tank mines, 60 to 80 light machine guns, 10 to 15 rocket launchers and 10 to 20 mortar bombs, Dick said.

"That's a good figure for our first weapons-collection task, probably more than ... (we) were expecting," Dick said.

When asked, however, whether NATO officials had succeeded in disarming the village near the collection site, Dick said some people still had guns.

"Yes," he said, "there will still be weapons remaining in the village this evening."

But he added: "It's got 400 less pieces than it did this morning -- simple as that."

Less than five miles away from the collection point, in the front-line village of Nikustak, the guerrillas are still armed to the teeth.

Many of the 30 or so guerrillas standing around in the courtyard of their local headquarters' building late Monday were carrying automatic rifles, high-tech two-way radios and cell phones.

A satellite phone sat on a table in a reception room in the headquarters along with a bowl of plastic fruit and a stereo playing Albanian pop music. Three semiautomatic guns were propped casually against a wall.

Commander Jahi, who runs the military police in that area, said the rebels would give up their weapons. "It is an order from (National Liberation Army) headquarters," he said. "We have to do it."

But a fellow rebel, who wouldn't give his name, left no question that the guerrillas would take up arms again if there were altercations with the Macedonian security forces.

"If they just try to shell us ... we're going to take over Skopje in less than three days," he said. "Then the territorial war will really start."

The death of the British soldier cast a pall over the NATO undertaking. The soldier was driving on the road to Kumanovo, the largest town near Monday's collection site, when a group of youths heaved a rock or piece of concrete into the side window of the vehicle, according to diplomatic sources, who asked not to be identified because the incident is still under investigation.

After being assisted by U.S. forces, the soldier was taken to Camp Able Sentry, the American military base near Skopje airport, and then flown to Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo, which has a medical center.

Before the night was over, he was flown back to Skopje University Hospital, where he underwent four hours of surgery. He died Monday morning.

No one has been apprehended in the case. President Trajkovski condemned the incident as an act of "mindless murder."

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