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International security forces needed to stabilize FYR of Macedonia: UN agency

International security forces needed to stabilize FYR of Macedonia: UN agency

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) today appealed to the international community to urgently put in place a security arrangement to stabilize the situation in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and allow the return of refugees and displaced persons.

"Introducing an international presence to fill the security vacuum is the only way to prevent further violence," Eric Morris, the agency's special envoy to the region said in a statement issued today in Skopje. "UNHCR cannot suggest what form or size the security arrangement should be, but this has to happen now - before NATO ends its mission - to ensure not only safety for civilians but also to help create conditions for the safe return of refugees and displaced people."

NATO troops, who are in the country to collect arms from the Albanian rebels, are due to complete their work before the end of this month.

Despite the signing of the peace agreement on 13 August, tension remains high in conflict-affected areas in the north-western part of the country, UNHCR says. Displaced Macedonians have blocked two main roads leading to neighbouring Yugoslavia used by returning ethnic Albanian refugees. In a counter protest, ethnic Albanian women and children set up their own blockade last week on a road near Tetovo, demanding the release of relatives allegedly kidnapped by Macedonian security forces.

While more than 30,000 ethnic Albanian refugees have returned from Kosovo, ethnic Macedonians do not yet feel safe to return to their homes where they are a minority. Meanwhile, as Albanian rebels surrender arms to NATO, Albanian civilians fear the presence of Macedonian security forces, particularly on the road between Tetovo and Jazince along the border with Kosovo, according to UNHCR.

"Both communities have legitimate fears and security concerns that prevent them from returning to their homes or moving freely between villages and towns," Mr. Morris said. "Unless we can address the fear, distrust and the increasing polarization between the communities, returns of refugees and displaced people will never be safe."

UNHCR has increased its presence in the past two weeks in war-affected villages, in order to create confidence in the implementation of the peace agreement. Despite the agency's earlier appeals to governments for larger deployment of international observers to help reverse fears among returnees and civilians in isolated villages, the number of international monitors remains low.