Peacekeeping force formed for Balkans Seven nations agree to contribute troops to cooperative effort


SKOPJE, Macedonia -- Seven southeastern European countries agreed yesterday to create a multinational military force that could be used for peacekeeping or aid operations in the Balkans and elsewhere.

Three NATO allies -- Italy, Greece and Turkey -- joined Albania, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Romania in creating the force, which will be a brigade with 3,000 to 4,000 troops divided into 14 companies by the time it is ready, probably sometime next year.

The countries' defense ministers signed a pact creating the force after meeting here in the Macedonian capital. The United States has welcomed the force, not so much for its military significance as for the cooperation between countries that have a history of rivalries and tensions.

U.S. Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, who attended the meeting yesterday, said the agreement underscored "new cooperation and confidence in southeastern Europe."

The seven countries, along with the United States and Slovenia, are part of what is called the Southeastern European Defense Ministerial.

Macedonia's minister of defense, Lazar Kitanovski, called the force "our contribution to the strengthening of European order."

He warned that despite efforts to improve military contacts among nations, the region remains divided by "ethnic intolerance" and "religious fundamentalism."

The meeting yesterday -- the third between the defense ministers since 1996 -- comes at a time of rising tension caused by a Yugoslav crackdown in Kosovo, whose population is predominantly ethnic Albanian. Albania and Macedonia fear the fighting could spill into their countries; some refugees already have.

As part of its efforts to press the Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic, to ease the crackdown, NATO dispatched more than 80 airplanes to Albania in June. It has also staged training exercises in NATO's "Partnership for Peace" countries -- central and eastern European countries waiting to join the alliance, including the four Balkan states that signed the agreement.

The United Nations maintains a small peacekeeping force in Macedonia, a former Yugoslav republic that declared its independence in 1991.

In July, the U.N. Security Council renewed the mission and, in a sign of the growing fear of the spread of fighting or refugees from Kosovo, increased the number of troops to 1,050.

Pub Date: 9/27/98

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