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Updated: 01-Oct-2001 Transcripts

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Press Briefing

held on 12 September 2001
at the NATO Press Centre in Skopje

Statement of Mark Laity:

Good morning, this is a very somber day. The reaction of most people throughout the world yesterday can be summed up in the word 'unbelievable'. Words can describe most things but some things are beyond words. We all share the shock and horror of what happened yesterday. Our sympathies extend to everyone who has lost families, relatives, sons, daughters, mothers, and fathers. I think that it would be appropriate at this moment that we share one minute of silence with the ones who have lost so much. So please join us in the minute of silence.

Statement of Major Johnson:

Thank you and please be seated.

Firstly, this is a very difficult day for me personally; this is something that impacts friends and colleagues that I've known most of my adult life. But it is also a difficult day for the NATO Alliance and I believe for all the peace-loving people around the world. I would like to reiterate that this does not dissuade us from our commitment here, our commitment towards the people of Macedonia who are undertaking a difficult journey themselves down a very hard road to peace and prosperity - that we intend to stay by you at this time. We remain diligent at meeting the objectives of TFH.

At this time, just a couple of administrative notes to remind people that there was a pool that went out this morning, so it departed already to the weapons collection site. On Friday, there is a facility down to Krivolak where all the weapons from this phase will be laid out for everybody to see as well as those weapons that have been disabled from the last phase. This will be an open facility and we will be providing more details tomorrow.

As you know, we opened another collection site this morning, it became active at approximately 9 a.m. It is located in the Kumanovo region between Matejce and Lipkovo, and once again it is being conducted by the Italian battle group to include its Turkish contingent. Most of you are probably not aware, however on short notice yesterday we conducted another collection site in the vicinity of Gostivar-Debar. This was conducted on a very short notice through our contacts with the so-called NLA, who said that they had weapons they wanted to turn in and we are flexible to adjust to these conditions, so we did establish a collection site in that region. It was conducted by the UK battle group, specifically by the Charlie Company of the 2nd Para Regiment. And we were encouraged with the results and these numbers and weapons will be included at the end of the phase for everybody to see. Also, I wanted you to be aware that we are conducting some route-clearance activities in support of the weapons collection sites, these are intended to ensure our access safely into these collection areas. The French battle group is conducting some clearance in the vicinity of Lesok- Zelce road and the UK battle group in the vicinity of Aracinovo-Kumanovo. I must stress that these are hazardous activities that our troops are undertaking and it would not only be inappropriate , it would be dangerous to have media there, so please, do not go out and try to make contacts with these clearance teams. You will not be allowed in these areas and it would only detract them from their mission, so please stay clear of those areas.

Joining us this morning is Lt-Col. Houdet, the Chief of Operations of the French Battle group. He will discuss their operation particularly at Brodec as well as their ongoing operation as part of the TFH. At this time I would like to turn it over to him.

Statement of Lt-Col. Houdet:

Good morning ladies and Gentlemen. I am the Chief of Operation of the Multinational Battle Group under French command. So, I am going to brief you this morning on the operation we have conducted in the Brodec area, an operation that we code named Tapanar, and I know that many of you want to know what Tapanar means, and this is the name of the mascot of my regiment in France, he is mule and we code named this operation after a mule name, because there are many mules in this mountainous area. But despite the fact I am giving a small joke about this now, I am going to try to show you that this operation was conducted very seriously.

So, to conduct this operation we were oriented by two key points, the first one is multinational and the second one is safety, I will explain these to you all along my briefing. So, the overall situation, geographically, we were at this area, i.e. 13 km northwest of Tetovo and the area was mountainous, hilly and woody. The mission we received from TFH brigade was as follows: to conduct weapons collection operation in the area of Tetovo between 8-10 September. So, the maneuver we wanted to do was oriented-, as I have said before- around the safety. Because in these operations, we have to manipulate some dangerous ammunition, many weapons and we do not want to have too many people wandering in a dangerous area. That is why we have drawn three circles on the field- the first one is what we call the Weapon Collection Point. This is the most sensitive point of the operation; this is the place where ammunition and weapons are voluntarily handed over to us. This barbarian symbol that you can see here is the symbol of a company that has about 100 men to hold this area. We then ensure the safety of a larger area- what we call the Weapon Collection Site, which is a circle of about 6-8 km long and in this area we deploy most part of the battalion in order to man check points and to check who is coming in the area. And once again, I repeat that this is made for safety reasons, because I know some of you might have been blocked by my checkpoints- sorry for that but this is really for your safety. And the last circle we have is a larger one in which we don't have troops but we have liaison teams and these teams, through the British teams are working together and they have liaison with different local chiefs of the so-called NLA the army and the MVR. This disposition allows us to inform people on how the situation is going on, when we are going to do destructions and when are the dangerous times. Sorry for these…they are our military symbols, but the only thing that you need to remember on this view is that we have deployed on the field 300 men and about 20 armored vehicles and the second thing that you must also see is that this is really a multinational battle group because we have a Spanish Company, a French company, we had with the liaison teams some British units. And you can also see that in the convoy that carried the weapons we had also some Belgian mechanized teams and for this operation we also had some of our friends: US helicopters. So, what we wanted is to secure the Brodec weapons collection site for the 9 September at 08:00 hrs. We had three phases. Firstly, we deployed the weapons collection site, secondly we collected weapons and ammunition and thirdly we have withdrawn our forces from the Brodec area. So, on the site itself this is how we deployed: on the weapon collection point we had one French and German company to man the weapon collection point. In the northern part of the area we had the Spanish company of our battalion. In the southern part, we had a French company, and a small reserve element of the French company. So, this is how the operation was conducted. We first began reconnaissance of the site, and then on 8 September, in the middle of the day we deployed our motorized elements in the area. Immediately, after that we deployed the long-range elements around Brodec by helicopter. During the night we settled down our dispositions, and then, the day after we opened the weapon collection site, we kept it open for two days and at the end of the second day, the containers with all the weapons and ammunition were heliborne out of the area. We then destroyed some unsafe pieces of ammunitions, at 1 a.m. we delivered the weapons to the Greek battle group in Krivolak, on 10 September, at 6 a.m. we withdrew all armed elements from Brodec and by the middle of the day the operation was finished. So this is all from me and now I am ready to answer your questions, Thank you very much.

Questions:

Question 1: (France Press) Can you tell us how the events in the US yesterday have affected Operation essential Harvest- Can we assume that there has been an increase in security , can you give us details on that and how many Americans are among the NATO troops deployed here?

Mark Laity: The mission continues. It continues as planned. So, in an essential way, nothing has changed. We will take appropriate security responses to the events from yesterday but we don't discuss them in public, so I will not give you any details on any increased security measures. I think if you want to know, we are a multinational force, if you want to get specific issues about the Americans then it is best to speak to them individually. I will point out that we have already adopted appropriate force protection measures because we are in an operational environment. The essential phrase is: The mission continues.

Question 2: (BBC): There was a reference to a clearance operation carried out by the French Battle Group in the Lesok area and also by the British battle group around Aracinovo, can you say exactly what has been cleared and what the danger was, and another question: have the Macedonian paramilitaries or armed civilians -seen in the area around Jazince- removed themselves from that area or is that still a problem for NATO?

Lt-Col Houdet: I can answer to the first part of your question because I personally planned this operation, so the operation started this morning and is currently going on, and in the Lesok area you have a part of the road which is mined and you have two improvised explosive devices in two cars and currently the operation is going on and it is planned to be finished for tomorrow evening.

Mark Laity: Just to emphasize as Barry said earlier. The clearance is in support of Operation Essential Harvest. Our forces use those routes and it is essential for the completion of our mission.

As to your second question: As it has become public knowledge, we have in fact requested some clarification from the government on this issue. We are still awaiting a formal response. But since prior to talking to us, some individuals have chosen to talk to the media, perhaps I should give some information out. Under the agreement between NATO and the Government of Macedonia, there are some restrictions and temporary movements which are covered by that agreement. This is an agreement between the Government of Macedonia and NATO and I will read you one sentence from that agreement: It obliges the Government of Macedonia and I quote " to include acceptance of such temporary relocations of, and/ or limitations of, its security forces as NATO may specify in order for it to carry out the collection of weapons". There is also an agreement to redeploy heavy weapons and extraordinarily deploy forces concurrent to collection of weapons. These are restrictions agreed by the government of Macedonia in a spirit of cooperation to ensure that our joint endeavor succeeds. This is part of our partnership. But it is inevitable that in a complex, difficult operation, some issues will arise, and then we communicate with each other. So, it was in this context that Peter Faith wrote a letter to Vice-premier Minister Filipovski, with reference to our concerns on the presence of armed civilian groups- known as the Lions. It's very unfortunate that somebody from inside the Macedonian government leaked this letter and put an unnecessary focus on what is actually a routine part of our joint endeavor. So, let me explain what our concerns were. There are groups operating in the Ratae area who we need more clarification regarding. There is a group calling itself 'the Lions' who say they are official. It would appear that there are official groups. But the chain of command is unclear and they do not appear answerable to local commanders. So, we still have uncertainties as to whom they are answerable. This may or may not be a problem, we are not sure. We need clarification, so we have asked for clarification. But forces whose status is uncertain and are operating in an area with such sensitivity can have an inhibiting factor on weapons hand-over. And the Commander's assessment is that there is such a risk, so any suggestion of forces that not under closest control of the government and operating with maximum of clarity can have a bad effect when we need maximum sensitivity. Let me make it clear, we are seeking information because we have concerns. There is nothing strange about that. Because this is the normal process of talking between the Government and NATO over this agreement. We spoke to Vice-Premier Filipovski yesterday and he will be arranging a reply to our letter, and then we can look at this issue, but I think it very unfortunate that this routine exchange between Government and NATO should be blown up into a big issue. We certainly would prefer to get this information Government to NATO rather than through the media. But I certainly also want to emphasize, as I have emphasized yesterday, the superb cooperation that we have with the Ministry of Defence and Army. So, when issues are raised we talk about them. But when there is a lack of clarity as there is in the Ratae area, we need clarification. There should be nothing strange with that, we just need to talk and that is what we are doing.

Question 3: What kind of numbers are you talking about?

Mark Laity: We do not have numbers, that is why we are seeking clarification- That is the point that I am making. To ensure we know to whom they are answerable to and how the chain of command works. It should be routine issues and we will sort them out, in a cooperative manner for our joint endeavor.

Question 4: (Danish Newspaper) There has been a lot of criticism that the NLA are holding back their most modern weapons. Do you expect that the most modern weapons will come up in the third phase when the NLA will feel more secure, i.e. after the parliament has agreed to ratify the peace agreement?

Lt-Col Houdet: I will give you a soldier's answer, because weapons are my job and I know them very well, so this is an expert advice I can give to you. A weapon that works is a weapon that kills. And, when you have a man who receives a bullet in the head, I think it is not so important to know if the weapon that fired the bullet is modern or old. As I was in the field I have seen the so-called NLA members on the checkpoints, they are totally equipped with the same type of weapons as the weapons they handed in to us. And I personally don't think that the so-called NLA is a so modern army to have so modern weapons, I do not believe it. When we were in the Brodec area, we have shown to the press that the weapons we have are functioning weapons. Since the beginning of the operation we have roughly 90% of the weapons- voluntarily handed-in that are working.

Question 5: (Dnevnik) I have two questions for Mark. The first one is regarding the alleged existence of Macedonian para-military troops in the area of Ratae. Could you please tell us who has noticed them -yesterday we have talked to a NATO soldier who is stationed in that area, and he has explicitly stated that he has not noticed anything like that?
The second question: You have mentioned on several occasions that you have an excellent cooperation with the Macedonian Ministry of Defence, can you tell us what is your cooperation with the Interior Ministry like?

Mark Laity: On question one: I would like to remind you that we are seeking clarification about the groups that are operating in the Ratae area. We do not have full clarity on the groups and their chains of command, whose authority they operate under, whether they have any answerability to local commanders, so it is this lack of clarification that is the issue. You would know that there is a variety of titles used. I think that the Prime Minister's Spokesman, Milosovski, talked about some people being called Lions but they could change their name. So if the Spokesman is not sure of what they are called , then it's hardly surprising that there might be some clarification needed. So, I emphasize that we are seeking clarification because we have uncertainties, and the Commander's concern is that this will have an inhibiting effect on the weapons collection. So, we write to the appropriate person and we seek clarification, that is the appropriate thing to do and that is what we are doing.

With regard to the second question, the cooperation we have with the police on the ground is in general terms extremely good, but I think that there is this lack of clarification over some groups. But certainly, some individuals such as General Galevski are regarded in the highest possible light.

Question 6: (Dnevnik): I would just like to correct you on the quote you gave - given by Government Spokesman Milosovski- he has said that basically those are special Task Forces operating under the Interior Ministry- who can be called Lions but they still do not have that name officially.

Mark Laity: My understanding is that when they have spoken to people on the ground, they call themselves Lions. The translation that I had with his interview with A1 TV, he does say that the unit does not have a specific name with 'the Lions' being one suggestion. I think that the fact of how they are called is an issue that reiterates the point . Perhaps he should ask them how they call themselves. It all just emphasizes that we need a little bit more clarity. Which is what that very polite and formal letter was about.

Question 7: How many weapons did you collect during the Brodec action?

Lt.Co. Houdet: We collected a number of weapons and that is what our goal was. As Mark said at the beginning, we will give all figures when all collection will be finished. All I can say to you is that the number of weapons that was handed in is the one that was announced first.

Mark Laity: Just to add to that we also will not release figures to you until we have first given them to the Macedonian Ministry of Defence. We always like to do things officially before we go to the media.

Question 8: The second phase of weapons collection is coming to an end, could you specify for us exactly when you plan to end the collection? Can you also give us a time-line on when you expect to give us the final figure, and when do you expect the Parliament to resume debating, can you also tell us whether you are confident that you will meet your target?

Mark Laity: I wish we could be as certain of things as you think we should be. In the end, remember that these weapons are voluntarily handed over, we are very confident that we are going to get the figures we need by the end of the week. In the end, it is up to the people who voluntarily give up the weapons and not up to the people who receive them.

Journalist: And also a supplementary: Do you see a slippage in the date, I believe that you have announced earlier that the weapons collection second phase should end by 13 September, i.e. tomorrow, and now you are saying that it is going to last until the end of the week - So Am I right? Is there a slippage in the date?

Mark Laity: No, as far as we are concerned, our timetable is to try and get these by the end of this week.
The matter of the parliamentary timetable is for the parliament. My only comment would be to say that the government and the parliament must and do understand the need for speed. It was them who indicated that they needed 45 days, so primarily it is their responsibility and our expectation that they succeed, living up to their own task. It is up to us to fulfill our side and then the government will live-up to its own timetable, which it gave us. But obviously, we all need to move quickly.