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For Macedonian government, one way out: talks

Government forces and ethnic-Albanian rebels agreed to a cease-fire early last Friday.

The three-day-old cease-fire in Macedonia has offered more than just breathing room for political leaders seeking to negotiate an end to the five-month rebellion by ethnic Albanians here. It has also given the struggling Macedonian Army and police a respite from guerrilla advances.

But if fighting resumes, Western military observers say, the government forces probably could not contain a concerted rebel assault. "Neither the Army nor the police has the training or the equipment to fight a counter-insurgency war," says one foreign military expert who has witnessed government forces in action. "They are like kids playing at cowboys and Indians."

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The 12,000-strong Macedonian Army - two-thirds of whom are conscripts - never expected to fight a war against rebels, nor to defend its northern border against infiltration. For several years a United Nations force protected the country against threats from Serbia, and since 1999 NATO forces in Kosovo have been stationed along the frontier.

But the UN force was disbanded three years ago, and KFOR has so far proved unable to seal a mountainous and wooded border against rebel mule trains loaded with supplies.

For the past five years, Macedonia has focused its military efforts on bringing its Army into line with NATO standards, in the hope of one day joining the Western alliance. That has involved less tactical training than bureaucratic moves to redesign the military's force structure and chains of command.

Helping them to do that have been one British officer and 16 former US soldiers working for Military Professional Resources Inc. (MPRI), a private Virginia-based company on contract to the US State Department.

Though MPRI has run courses in tactics for junior Macedonian officers and non-commissioned officers, the small Army - backed by an estimated 4,000 police troops and reservists - has proved ineffectual against the experienced and disciplined guerrillas in the ethnic-Albanian National Liberation Army (NLA).

The Constitution bars the Army from fighting in built-up areas, such as the northern villages occupied by the NLA, unless authorities declare a state of war. It is limited to supporting policemen who are trained to cope with criminals, not guerrillas.

It has offered that support through long-range artillery fire, which Western military observers say is of little use, since the gunners and police lack the communications equipment to coordinate their operations. Such equipment is among the items due to be provided this year under the US's $13 million military aid program, along with vehicles and the MPRI advice.

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But Western governments have offered little military help for fear the Army might use disproportionate force against the rebels.

Skopje has had more luck with Ukraine, which has provided four Sukhoi 25 fighter bombers and seven MI-24 helicopter gunships. But they "are more for show," says the Western military observer. "They make a lot of noise and smoke, but the munitions they are using cause relatively little damage."

A three-day, all-out aerial assault two weeks ago on the small town of Aracinovo - occupied by the NLA - failed to dislodge the guerrillas. When NATO troops evacuated the rebels in order to restore a cease-fire, they found only one serious casualty among the 350 men they took out.

In the hills above Tetovo and Kumanovo, the scene of the heaviest fighting, government security forces have betrayed their lack of tactical skills.

"They need to pull back and train, and they need at least 60 days of intensive light-infantry and leadership training," says the military observer. "And they would need outside help."

That help seems a distant prospect. Turkish advisers are said to be training a joint Army-police counter-insurgency unit, and Italian and French soldiers have offered training on particular pieces of equipment, such as mine-clearing devices, that their governments have provided. But no government has offered the broad tactical training that appears to be necessary.

Meanwhile, the NLA has the upper hand. It is believed to comprise many fighters who won experience - and training from Western forces - in Kosovo Liberation Army ranks during the Kosovo conflict in 1998 and 1999.

Estimates of NLA strength vary from a few hundred to 2,000 men, however, and they are lightly armed with AK-47s, mortars, and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. This would not give them the strength they would need to capture and hold large amounts of territory or large towns, and diplomats fear that any resumption of hostilities would lead to anarchic fighting between bands of armed paramilitaries.

It is that prospect that is spurring US and European envoys to prod ethnic-Macedonian and ethnic-Albanian leaders to find a political way out of the current impasse. As one European diplomat puts it: "There is no military solution to this crisis."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor