SKOPJE, Macedonia — NATO collected its first batch of weapons from ethnic Albanian guerrillas in Macedonia on Monday, even as the alliance's mission suffered its first fatality when a British soldier was killed in an attack by ethnic 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 NATO's weapons-collection operation in Macedonia, became one of the few alliance soldiers killed in the Balkans in a hostile act.
The attack occurred against an increasingly antagonistic backdrop for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization operation, which gathered roughly 400 weapons Monday from the guerrillas, who say they have been fighting for more rights for Macedonia's sizable ethnic Albanian minority.
Instead of the cease-fire and easing 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 went off in Skopje, the capital, in 24 hours; over the weekend, two ethnic Macedonians were killed in the bombing of a popular restaurant.
Macedonian politicians have lambasted NATO officials for the small number of weapons they aim to collect from the heavily armed guerrillas, and public opinion in Macedonia appeared to be hardening against the mission.
This stage of the 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 this month into law.
If lawmakers remain skeptical about the number of weapons NATO collects, and if the Macedonian public's view of the alliance is negative, it will be difficult to win support for pushing through the changes, which would raise the legal 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 the 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 newspaper charged today 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 rebels' hands.
But British Maj. Alex Dick, a spokesman for the operation--dubbed "Essential Harvest"--said that "although there was some old equipment, there was some new equipment" among the weapons handed in Monday by the guerrillas, who have been fighting Macedonian government forces for the last seven months.
NATO has begun its weapons-collection operation parallel to the effort in Macedonia's parliament. Ethnic Albanian guerrillas who voluntarily give up their guns receive amnesty. But there is little trust that the effort will bring peace, in part because violent, ethnically motivated incidents are continuing almost daily and because many ethnic Macedonians fear that NATO will side with the ethnic Albanians.
In the face of such doubts, the alliance declared its first day of weapons collection a success. NATO helicopters swooped into Otlja, a village about 20 miles from Skopje in the hilly terrain of northern Macedonia, where most of the guerrilla strongholds are located.
Alliance 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 antitank mines, 60 to 80 light machine guns, 10 to 15 rocket launchers and 10 to 20 mortar shells, Dick said.
"That's a good figure for our first weapons-collection task, probably more than . . . [we] were expecting," he 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 rebels standing 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.