NATO decides to send troops into Macedonia

The Associated Press
Wednesday August 22, 2001

SKOPJE, Macedonia — With his miniature spy planes at 16,000 feet and guided by remote control, U.S. Army Capt. Daniel Dittenber’s pilots camped on the ground aren’t exactly in any danger. 

That’s just the way the Bush administration likes it. Putting hardware instead of humans into harm’s way is especially appealing to Washington as the United States joins NATO’s newest foray into the Balkans, a mission to disarm from ethnic Albanian rebels in Macedonia. 

NATO’s ruling council was expected to approve that mission Wednesday and clear the way for the full deployment of 3,500 troops after the alliance’s supreme commander in Europe recommended it Tuesday during a session in Brussels, Belgium. 

The mission comes at a time when the Bush administration is trying to get American troops out of the Balkans, never mind sending more in. So U.S. troops will play a behind-the-scenes role. 

Only several hundred Americans will participate, focusing on limited logistical duties. Dittenber, a 26-year-old officer from Turner, Mich., says the photographs his unit’s reconnaissance aircraft will take should play an important part in the risky mission. “We keep an eye out for them. We make it possible for them to see the bad guy around the corner,” he said. 

Unlike the NATO-led mission in Kosovo – where the U.S. military charged in on the first wave and settled in so firmly that its massive base, Camp Bondsteel, has been nicknamed the Balkan Battlestar Galactica – Americans are taking a back seat this time. 

Roughly 9,000 Americans remain on patrol in Europe’s most volatile region – 500 in Macedonia, 5,000 in Kosovo and 3,500 in Bosnia-Herzegovina – with no end in sight. 

The Bush administration has made no secret of its desire to disengage from the Balkans, although it has promised not to make any dramatic troop reductions without consulting with its European allies. 

It will be the Europeans who will pick up rebel weapons at collection sites scattered across rugged mountain territory where firefights have raged since the insurgents took up arms six months ago, saying they were fighting for more rights for Macedonia’s minority ethnic Albanians. After a peace deal signed last week expanded those rights, the rebels say they’re prepared to hand in their weapons. 

NATO has said it will deploy the full force only when it is confident that the cease-fire is viable and lasting. Gen. Joseph Ralston, speaking to the North Atlantic Council on Tuesday, said waiting would be riskier than deploying now. 

Although violence in the country has dramatically subsided, an explosion early Tuesday rocked an Orthodox Christian monastery in the town of Lesok outside Tetovo, Macedonia’s second-largest city. 

A church at the monastery complex, Sveti Atanasi, crumpled behind its twin-towered facade. Blue-toned frescoes of saints lay in heaps of rubble, exposed to the elements for the first time in decades. 

Macedonia’s culture minister, Ganka Samoilova-Cvetanovska, blamed the rebels, who began launching assaults on the village last month. The rebels denied responsibility. 

“Attacks on places of worship are totally unacceptable and undermine the efforts of all those who are striving to restore peace and stability,” NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson said in a statement Tuesday. In Washington, U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Philip Reeker called the attack a “disgraceful act.” 

Fearing further instability, the Macedonian government postponed a census of the country’s population until next year. The census, required under the peace accord, is one of the most delicate tasks Macedonia faces, in part because ethnic Albanians say they account for at least a third of the country’s population. The government says that number is too high. 

Still, President Boris Trajkovski expressed new confidence that ethnic Albanians and Macedonians would be able to start fresh, dismissing any suggestion that NATO troops would help the rebels hold the territory they’ve already seized by essentially solidifying the front lines. 

“The U.S. has a moral obligation to the region,” he told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday. “We’ve been here as partners for the last 10 years.” 

U.S. forces have used Macedonia as a support base for their operations in the Balkans, particularly those in neighboring Kosovo. 

That means the Macedonia mission will be business as usual for Dittenber and the other men and women of Alpha Company, 15th Military Intelligence Battalion of the 504 Military Intelligence Brigade out of Fort Hood, Texas. 

They are already flying the Hunter unmanned aerial vehicle from Skopje’s airport in support of NATO’s mission in Kosovo, where ethnic Albanian militants are widely believed to be smuggling weapons and supplies over the border to their brothers in arms in Macedonia. 

The soldiers can provide real-time video of what’s happening on the ground — data critical to commanders in the field. The information comes from a tiny plane that stands just 5 feet tall. 

Chief Warrant Officer Kevin Williams, 37, of Houston, jokes that the Hunter’s pictures of the Balkans remind him of home. 

“It looks just like a picture of Texas,” he said.