Macedonia's Foreign Minister Srgam Kerim asked the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday to support the deployment of NATO peacekeepers along his country's border with Serbia's Kosovo province to help stem a rash of attacks by ethnic Albanian guerrillas.
Kerim said deploying NATO troops - which are already in Kosovo - along the border would prevent guerrillas from using southern Kosovo as a staging ground for attacks in northern Macedonia, which have picked up sharply in the past week.
"We would like to see KFOR on the border where it already is, alongside the border between Macedonia and Kosovo," he told reporters shortly before a scheduled closed-door meeting with the 15-nation Security Council.
"Our security forces cannot act efficiently without support from the KFOR side, and the other way around," he said.
Kerim told council diplomats he wants the NATO deployment to take place inside a 3-mile (5-km) buffer zone located entirely inside Kosovo, but he did not spell out details.
NATO Secretary-General George Robertson on Tuesday threw cold water on the idea of a new buffer zone there, known in NATO parlance as a "ground safety zone."
"I don't think another ground safety zone, frankly, is the answer here," he said in response to a question.
BEEFING UP PATROLS
However, Robertson said the Atlantic alliance was already sending more peacekeepers to the border and stepping up patrols to prevent the guerrillas from using the province for raids into Macedonia. Robertson was in New York for private talks with the council and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
In the Macedonian capital Skopje on Wednesday, a U.S. commander said that American, Polish, Ukrainian and Lithuanian peacekeepers had taken control of Mijak, a town in Kosovo adjoining the flashpoint Macedonian village of Tanusevci.
It was the first armed engagement involving KFOR - established to keep the peace in Kosovo after NATO fought to free the province's ethnic Albanians from Serbian repression - since Macedonia sounded the alarm last week over an incursion into Tanusevci by what it called Albanian "terrorists".
The region already sports one three-mile (five km) buffer area, in southern Serbia, set up in 1999 to prevent Yugoslav troops from launching surprise attacks against NATO-led peacekeepers in Kosovo.
That zone runs around the outside of Kosovo's internal boundary with the rest of Yugoslavia, from the Montenegrin border in the northwest to the Macedonian border in the southeast.
NATO and others fear the guerrilla attacks in Macedonia could trigger a new Balkan conflict. Ethnic Albanians make up about a fourth of Macedonia's 2 million people.
Russian ambassador Sergei Lavrov said the attacks represented "an attempt to destabilize the entire Balkans and try to provoke a redrawing of the borders, which would mean another war."
"Lavrov told reporters that NATO forces already had a mandate to assure that Kosovo's border was respected.
So "they have to respond to the legitimate request by the government of Macedonia that the illegal infiltrations from Kosovo into Macedonia must be stopped."