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Updated: 01-Oct-2001 Transcripts

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Press Briefing

held on 20 September 2001
at the NATO Press Centre in Skopje

Mark Laity
Sorry for the delay, we got caught up in a traffic jam and then we had to do our preparations when we got back, so our apologies.

Statement by Major Barry Johnson
Good morning, as always, and thank you for your patience. As you all know we did establish a weapons collection site today in the vicinity of Radusa. The unit there, as I said yesterday, is the French battle-group, along with its German and Spanish contingents. The site is going to remain established there, but we do not anticipate weapons actually being turned in today. And as a result of that we postponed the pool and we'll get more information on that as it clarifies. But, as I said the collection site will remain established there. We also have some route clearing activities occurring today and tomorrow; this is in the vicinity north of Kumanovo, along the Opae - Slupcane road. (Sorry if I butchered those names). I hope everybody understands where that is. The purpose of this is to facilitate future weapons collection sites in the area. It has a secondary purpose of assisting a Macedonian army unit in that area to use the route in order to move itself back towards its Kumanovo barracks. This is being conducted by a company of the 2 battalion of the para regiment, the UK unit. Once again we ask as this occurs that media not go to that area and not interfere with the clearance process. There are, of course, inherent dangers in route clearance and we want to ensure our troops have their full attention to the task at hand.

Statement by Mark Laity
First of all, I see that there is an article in Vecer about me today. And there's some concern about my health. And obviously, I am really quite touched that Vecer should be concerned about my health. So, many thanks, it's nice to know you care. I just want to let you know, don't worry, I'm fine. Thanks for the concern, but you don't need to worry.
There's also some material about Mujahedin and Aracinovo. Now, I had a peripheral involvement in Aracinovo and the pullout from Aracinovo. All the colleagues who were very closely involved, who were in Aracinovo, are friends of mine. So, I know quite a lot about Aracinovo, how it happened and what happened. I want to make crystal clear - there were no Mujahedin in Aracinovo. I know it's caused some amusement and I've aided, I hope, to that amusement about the significance of beards or otherwise. And I am glad to see that somebody who wears a beard has not been deterred from coming to the press conference. But, that does seem to be the only evidence we've seen of Mujahedin in Aracinovo - is beards. But, my colleagues were in Aracinovo and they didn't see any Mujahedin. The reason they didn't is because there were no Mujahedin. I also want to make clear because of some of the comments around this event, to remind you of why NATO was in Aracinovo - because the government of Macedonia asked us to be there. That's the whole government. I was a witness to some of these meetings and I saw and was a witness that the President asked us to be there, the Prime Minister asked us to be there, the interior minister was involved in the operation, otherwise we wouldn't have done it. We only got involved in Aracinovo because we were asked to. And it was a hugely successful operation, because the threat to the heart of Skopje was removed. It reflects great credit on the Macedonian government that they wished it to be done and if I may be a little bit personal here, it reflects great credit on my colleagues and friends, who took great personal risk to work on behalf of the Macedonian people, to remove this threat to the heart of Skopje. They take pride in their action and there were no Mujahedin there. So I hope that those of you who do not believe me, would at least recognize the sincerity of the people who were there. And the close cooperation that they had was not just with the Macedonian government, but the Macedonian security forces in the removal of those NLA people from a position where they could have threatened your capital. Aracinovo may seem to be a cause for controversy to you, but in fact it was a huge success for the Macedonian government and one NATO is pleased to have played a significant role in.
If I could just move on, with reference to events in Semsevo and the area around there, for the third night it has been extremely quiet. We recorded five single shots and that was it. So, I think what we are seeing over the last three days has been a significant calming down of that area, which is especially significant because of how active the events of the previous days have been. We come from a time of active and nightly gunfire to one where I have to inform you that there were only five single shots. There were also reports about the presence of NLA in Semsevo. The Harvest liaison teams were in that area yesterday and they reported no uniformed people that they saw. It is quite possible that there are some people still in there with guns, but this would be a very small number of observations, one or two. But overall, Semsevo was extremely calm. I know that the road blocks about which we have been concerned yesterday appear not to have been what we thought they were. With that, I'll finish.

Question 1: What's delaying the weapons collections?
Maj. Johnson: The collection site is there and is open. As we keep saying, we are prepared to take weapons when the so-called NLA is ready to turn them in. We had enough indications that they were willing for us to establish this site as we had planned. So, if there are some new concerns that are being addressed and we are actively facilitating the process, so we that can continue and get those weapons that are there. What the specific concerns are right now that they are trying to resolve, I just don't know at this time.
Laity: It is not a tap we can turn on and off. When they want to give us weapons, we'll take them. I think it just emphasizes that this is a process where we are receivers of weapons, not controllers of the process.
Journalist: Have you been told by the NLA that they are not turning in weapons? They are not going to start turning them in today?
Maj. Johnson: I don't know if later today, if they are going to at this time. There are indications that there are concerns that need to be addressed. In this process we are continuing to try to facilitate those concerns so that they will turn in their weapons. I don't know how significant those concerns are, but of course we are staying in place and we are hopeful to get this resolved as soon as possible and we'll take weapons as soon as they are ready to turn them over to us.

Question 2: (MTV) A question for Mr. Laity. You have mentioned that there were no armed members of the so-called NLA in Semsevo. I haven't been to Semsevo and Zilce myself, but a colleague and a close friend of mine has, and I believe him. The MTV team was held up for several hours by NLA members and they were allowed to go into Zilce few hours later.
Laity: When was this?
Journalist: Yesterday afternoon, around 1500 - 1600 hrs.
Laity: The only report we have of anyone being held at a checkpoint was for… civilian people who stopped people at checkpoints and checked their credentials. When the correspondent from Vecer raised this issue yesterday of a team that had been held at what appear to be gunpoint, we checked that out. Indeed, we checked with Vecer to ensure that they were OK and their report this morning was that they were stopped by unarmed NLA members, who asked for IDs and searched the vehicle. We have no reports of armed gunmen at checkpoints. Certainly, detained for several hours is something that we know nothing of and it's very late to suddenly bring this up now. But I did ask specifically if there were any reports of such incidents of our teams last night, and they said there were no such incidents. I've also spoken to people who were not in the liaison teams and they did not report armed people at checkpoints yesterday. So, if you have specific things you wish to bring up, then you should give us notice of them so we can check them out. As we did with Vecer when they raised their concern, we followed up and we spoke to Vecer.

Question 3: Do you have any information about the explosion on the Tetovo-Skopje road, near the service station "Seven Brothers"?
Laity: We just have a report of it happening and our indications from Macedonian police sources, it's probably a criminal activity. But I would emphasis that this is not our information. So, other than the fact of the explosion, I've got no further information and I think probably the Macedonian police would be the best people to go to.

Question 4: I would like to go back to the delay of weapons collection. Do you have any indications that this is any way connected with the delay of the parliamentary procedure?
Laity: No, we don't. But obviously it's a matter of record that there was a phasing expected in this process. That the first weapon collection was followed by the first parliamentary stage, the second followed by the second parliamentary stage, with the third stage to start after that. I imagine it was expected by the NLA that the Parliamentary Commission would complete its work and be voted upon yesterday. And I think it does emphasize that, for everyone's benefit, we need to move the process as fast as possible. The sooner we get the guns of the NLA, the sooner we can all get on with our lives in a normal fashion, so the faster, the better. Because it obviously emphasizes the need for everyone to work hard to move quickly, because then the displaced people can return home, then normal politics can resume and therefore the need for haste I think is being emphasized all the time. We've come so far really quite quickly. It will be a pity if the process slowed now. But, obviously, this is up to parliamentarians. Their constituents, the displaced people, all of those will doubtless make their feelings clear. But as to whether this was the reason the NLA appear not to be delivering weapons at present, we simply don't know.

Question 5: This is a question for Maj. Johnson. After what has happened in the US and after we have seen that there's been a state of alert in the US army, even in NATO, what has changed with NATO troops in Macedonia? What is the state of alert? Is it something very serious now, if you can elaborate on the changes that have been done after a week now of what's happened in the US? And for you, Mr. Laity. You are saying that the process has to move faster. Could you just elaborate which are the steps that you are undertaking to help this process move forward?
Maj. Johnson: Of course, this is an extremely serious situation, and it's not just here in Macedonia, it's worldwide. We hear the American president and the American government, they state daily, if not hourly on our televisions that we are in a state of war. As an American soldier this is not something that I take lightly, it's a very serious situation. Here we are with a NATO force and we are taking, again, all these concerns worldwide, as with forces everywhere, very seriously. This is a new threat, a somewhat unanticipated threat, and we are taking appropriate measures at all of our bases and with all of our soldiers to ensure their security. I know everybody would like us to elaborate further on what those are, but of course we don't, because we are not going to compromise the security of our soldiers. But every commander has the responsibility to assess the situation and take the appropriate steps that he or she deems necessary. And that's exactly what we are doing here in Macedonia with all the NATO forces, just as forces around the world are doing.
Laity: I am slightly concerned because a Mujahedin has just entered the room. He is even wearing combats. I hope that's just a camera. Just don't point it at me too obviously.
Well, we've given ourselves an extremely tight deadline - 30 days and we are meeting it. When we first came here, speaker Andov scheduled the first vote even before for a date when we had actually planned merely to had deployed. But, we rose to that challenge. In effect, we collected the first third of weapons ten days ahead of schedule. We then deployed early for the second phase, when there were, perhaps, concerns that we hadn't got weapons, we kept the collection sites open for extra periods and on the political front, we have put in a very intensive effort, offering advice and support to the Macedonian government. We are in constant consultation with them on a variety of issues. Getting their views, offering ours, moving forward together. As you would expect with a NATO-aspirant nation and member of the Partnership for Peace. The EU must really speak for itself, but I think it's a matter of record that they have moved very quickly on matters of aid, on numbers of EU monitors. The OSCE is in intensive consultations about its own monitoring force. Everywhere you look there is a remarkable unity of purpose by the international community, moving quickly on a variety of fronts. I think that the international community has often been accused of being slow and unwieldy. Let's be frank, coordinating the efforts of scores of nations is not easy, but the commitment has been remarkable - police advisors, EU monitors, OSCE monitors, promises of aid, UN assistance, NATO troops rushed here from their homes to disarm a dangerous rebel group in 30 days. I think this is a remarkable achievement, all very fast. We are all still here, waiting for the next phase. It's not ending, it's changing, continuing, developing. Macedonia is the focus of a huge international effort. A small nation with very many friends. Now we want everybody to move fast. We want the weapons in fast, we want the Framework agreement in fast, we want the displaced people home fast. But, we'll stay on because we are all partners, to make sure that Macedonia takes its rightful place in the European community of nations. I think that should be enough. We are doing our bit.

Question 6: Is there a chance that Essential Harvest is going to be delayed, because of delays in weapons turn ins and in parliament at this point?
Laity: We are planning to be out when our mandate finishes.

Question 7: Parliament is supposed to vote today on whether to hold a referendum. What happens if they vote for submitting the reform package to a referendum? Will the peace process break down?
Laity: I don't know. Clearly there will be months of delay and who knows what would happen in those months. We are on the fast track to peace now. So I don't know. But it's inevitable that there will be big delays. But this is the choice of the Macedonian parliament. It's their decision. So, presumably, this is a fact they are taking into account but I wouldn't presume to make their decision for them or tell them what to do. But who knows what would happen.

Question 8: I didn't mean to make another question, but just to follow this. Do you have any plan B or C or D if something like that happens, if there are months of delays and you don't know what's going to happen? What are you going to do because you'd feel entrapped here in this country?
Laity: We are not entrapped in this country. We are partners with the government of Macedonia. We are here because we want to be here, we are here because the government wants us to be here. So I think being trapped is the wrong word. And we will adapt to circumstances as they arise.

Question 9: Do you have any new information from the NAC about the new mission?
Laity: The meeting yesterday did not arrive at a definitive conclusion. But the president's request was studied by the Alliance and it was looked at in a very positive light. But, as to our exact response, I think it's too early. Because although the request is simple, the response requires careful thought and considerations to what exactly do we do. So, positive but a lot of work and a lot of discussion needed. I can say it is being regarded as a very high priority issue. Obviously, the events in the USA last week are a focus of considerable concern and time by the NAC. But, they've not taken the eye off the ball in this area. There are lot of meetings going on, a lot of discussions going on. So we'll be replying as fast as we can. It won't be for lack of effort or lack of commitment to fast decision.

Question 10: Mark, if the request is relatively straightforward and simple as you mentioned, what are the issues that make it so complicated to resolve? Could you give us some examples?
Laity: Well, the request is simple because it is asking for a NATO mission to support the protection of the monitors and it talks about a light presence. But the Macedonian government has said that exactly what that means is for discussion, what's the best way for the monitors to be protected, how many people are needed, what kind of structures. So, the request may seem simple, but we are not going to do things in a overhasty way, we are going to make it right. And there are 19 nations in NATO and they have to talk to each other about exactly what they believe is right. It took some time for this government to make the request and it's one government. It is now being assessed by 19.
Thank you.