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Macedonia rebel vows cooperation

A hooded Macedonian police officer at a checkpoint near rebel strongholds  

SKOPJE, Macedonia -- A rebel commander in Macedonia is pledging to cooperate with NATO forces, as an advance team of British troops heads for the capital, Skopje.

But he warns that ethnic Albanian forces have the will -- and the means -- to resume their fight if the peace plan is not implemented.

The Western-backed attempt to avert a new Balkans war suffered a setback on Thursday when a Macedonian policeman was killed in the northwestern town of Tetovo, apparently by a rebel sniper in defiance of a cease-fire declared Sunday.

Fierce firefights erupted in Tetovo after the shooting.

The first planeload of 40 British soldiers is due to land at Skopje airport at around 7 p.m. (1500 GMT) as part of a NATO advance mission. The rest of the 400-strong force will fly in over the weekend to set up a headquarters.

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In Brussels, ambassadors of the 19 NATO governments are scheduled to meet from about noon (1000 GMT) to decide whether to send the full complement of 3,500 troops they have agreed to make available for the former Yugoslav republic.

NATO forces are to stay just 30 days to collect weapons due to be surrendered voluntarily by rebels at the end of a six-month conflict in return for political reforms favoring the one-third ethnic Albanian minority.

But the plan still faces many risks. CNN's Walter Rodgers said Thursday's shooting showed the volatility of the environment the NATO soldiers were entering.

A NATO official in Brussels it was far from clear whether the ambassadors would decide at Friday's meeting to send the full force, the alliance's third commitment to the Balkans alongside Bosnia and Kosovo peacekeeping missions, Reuters reported.

The military alliance says it will not deploy unless there is a durable cease-fire. But a NATO source said the shooting of the policeman, the first member of the security forces killed this week, was not enough to derail plans for the mission.

The warning by the ethnic Albanian commander also underlined the risks of the mission. "We want to resolve the problem through peaceful means," said the commander, who goes by the name of Clirimi and heads the rebels' military police in the 112th Brigade which covers the ethnic Albanian majority region of Tetovo, Macedonia's second-largest city.

"But if arms are needed, we can do that, no problem," Clirimi told The Associated Press.

"We have been and still are in a position to deal with the Macedonian forces in any situation at any time," he said. "We have the morale, sufficient numbers and the support of the people. We have no doubts of a victory over government forces."

British officials said its troops were going to help implement the peace deal forged between political leaders on all sides and would not get involved in any fighting between ethnic Albanian rebels and government forces.

Macedonian army soldiers patrol a village northeast of Skopje  

British armed forces minister Adam Ingram said: "We are there for weapon collection, not to work a green line between the two sides, not to peace-make or to peace-keep and not to pursue one group against another. If it does go pear-shaped, then this force will have to terminate."

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 on Wednesday, and said it was expecting the first troops at the weekend.

Full deployment would include troops from 11 European nations and the United States.

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 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.

Fighting flared between Macedonian government forces and the rebels earlier this year, with the government saying the ethnic Albanian militants were "terrorists" seeking to break-up the country. The rebels said they were fighting for increased rights for ethnic Albanians in Macedonia.

• Macedonian government
• NATO's official site
• Ministry of Defence - UK

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