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NATO set for Macedonia mission

A Macedonian army solider flashes the 3-finger Orthodox salute while their vehicle patrols the outskirts of Skopje.
A Macedonian army solider flashes the 3-finger Orthodox salute while their vehicle patrols the outskirts of Skopje.  

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- NATO is planning to send 400 troops to Macedonia by the end of this week to begin the process of disarming ethnic Albanian rebels.

A lightly armed force of mostly headquarters, communications and other support elements -- 400 personnel in all -- will travel to the former Yugoslav republic by the end of the week, NATO spokesman Yves Brodeur told CNN.

They will be drawn from Britain's 16th Air Assault Brigade.

The North Atlantic Council, the military alliance's ruling body, met after rebels pledged on Tuesday in Skopje to hand in their weapons to a British-led force of 3,500 troops.

But NATO chiefs had said a full deployment could not go ahead until the cease-fire agreed at political settlement talks on Monday was being maintained.

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"We are in a very active dynamic," Brodeur said. "Things are moving quickly. It's been very positive since the signature of the agreement. Lots of things have happened and we are encouraged by what has happened so far."

Another meeting will be held later this week or possibly on Monday to discuss full deployment of the 30-day mission, dubbed Operation Essential Harvest. Full deployment would include troops from 11 European nations and the United States.

Reuters reported that in a sharp contrast to last week, when at least 30 people were killed in the bloodiest days of the conflict so far, a cease-fire was, despite scattered violations overnight, largely holding.

British armed forces minister Adam Ingram told CNN the advance force would be establishing a headquarters and setting up communications links.

"What they will be doing is assessing the situation on the ground to advise the decision-makers in NATO as to the desirability of the further deployment of NATO troops for weapons collection.

"If the agreement doesn't hold -- and that's a matter between the parties -- their advice to NATO would be don't send troops at the present time.

"If that was the decision, no further troops would be deployed if there was no prospect of weapons collection."

The government in the former Yugoslav republic gave the necessary formal go-ahead for full deployment Wednesday, and said it was expecting the first troops at the weekend.

But the head of a planned NATO mission to collect weapons said on Wednesday a cease-fire was too ragged to allow deployment yet.

Macedonian army soldiers patrol a village northeast of Skopje  

Major General Gunnar Lange told a news conference that some of the conditions for deployment had been met following Monday's peace accord and that plans for deployment of the 3,500-strong force were advancing quickly.

Lange said a group of 15 NATO experts would examine the cease-fire, declared on Sunday night but marred by repeated violations, "over the next few days."

Once NATO forces are in Macedonia, they are meant to stay for just 30 days and then leave. Lange said that, if an extension seemed necessary, it would be up to NATO governments to decide.

NATO officials in Brussels also said rebels officially declared how many weapons they intend to turn in. They were working with the Macedonian government to get them to accept that figure, estimated at 2,000 weapons.

A rebel commander told CNN on Tuesday that rebels would give up their arms in three stages over the 30-day period, with a verification process to satisfy the security concerns of both sides.

Sporadic fighting has continued to cast a shadow over Monday's breakthrough Macedonian peace accord.

The commitment signed by the rebels to lay down their arms is pending a grant of amnesty from the government.

President Boris Trajkovski helped pave the way to the rebel disarmament pledge by promising NATO mediators he would grant an amnesty, except for crimes that could be prosecuted by the U.N. war crimes tribunal. But an amnesty still has to be voted through the Macedonian-dominated parliament.

Macedonian prosecutors said on July 30 they were asking for arrest warrants against 11 National Liberation Army (NLA) members.

A NATO spokesman said discussions were continuing with the government over an amnesty, with some issues still outstanding. But an announcement could come as soon as Wednesday, he said.

A rebel commander told CNN that under the disarmament commitment, rebels would give up their arms in three stages over a 30-day period, with a verification process to satisfy the security concerns of both sides.

Trajkovski is expected to send a letter to parliament on Wednesday outlining needed constitutional changes, a first formal step towards implementing the package of reforms, Reuters reported.

• Macedonian government
• NATO's official site

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