Putin: NATO must block rebel arms
KIEV, Ukraine -- Russian President Vladimir Putin says NATO's mission to collect and destroy weapons from ethnic Albanian rebels in Macedonia is "long overdue."
He also urged the alliance to block supply channels, saying the conflict was spreading from Kosovo and other Balkan trouble spots.
"If we really want to take away all weapons, it is necessary to seal all the channels of their delivery to the region," Putin was quoted as saying by the ITAR-Tass news agency on Friday.
Putin was speaking after a meeting with Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski.
The Russian president echoed earlier Russian suggestions that the fighting spilled over into Macedonia because of the alliance's failure to disarm the Kosovo Albanian "terrorists."
The two leaders met on the sidelines of Ukrainian independence celebrations.
Trajkovski later met separately with Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma to discuss ways to settle the conflict and agreed that Kuchma would visit the troubled country at an undetermined date.
Ukraine has been one of Macedonia's main suppliers of military equipment, but has suspended arms supplies after pressure from the United States.
Russia, a harsh critic of NATO's 1999 airstrikes in the Yugoslav province of Kosovo, has supported the Macedonian government in its conflict with ethnic Albanian rebels.
On Thursday, Putin expressed support for the British-led mission -- Operation Essential Harvest -- to collect weapons from the rebels, but said he doubted it would succeed.
After Friday's meeting, Putin told reporters that "terrorists, and not rebels who are allegedly concerned about humanitarian, language and religious problems," were active in the Balkans.
He warned that the international community must not be deceived by such pretexts, the Interfax news agency said.
Trajkovski thanked Putin and called for joint Russian and Macedonian efforts for peace in the Balkans and for an international conference on borders and human rights in the Balkans.
"This is the only way to bring the region out of crisis," he was quoted as saying.
"If the problem is not resolved, the question of the confirmation of the existing borders in the Balkans will be raised in the United Nations."
Trajkovski called Kosovo "a bleeding wound of southern Europe."
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