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Macedonia force decision delayed

A hooded Macedonian police officer at a checkpoint  

SKOPJE, Macedonia -- A vanguard force headed to Macedonia as NATO delayed a decision on whether to deploy thousands more troops to collect arms from rebels.

A team of 41 British logisticians and technicians flew out on a Hercules military transport aircraft on Friday headed for Skopje as part of a NATO advance mission.

The rest of the 400-strong advance force will fly in during the weekend to set up headquarters.

They are to pave the way for another 3,000 NATO troops to be sent to collect arms from ethnic Albanian rebels.

An advance party of 120 Czech paratroopers assigned to protect the task force has already arrived in Skopje.

How arms will be 'harvested'  

Q&A: What the deal means for Macedonia Macedonia peace plan will test rebels' intentions  
Macedonia: Hurdles to peace  
CNN's Walter Rodgers: Advance mission will guage the feeling on the ground
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NATO ambassadors meeting in Brussels decided they wanted to wait for the advance team to report on the military situation in the country before deciding whether to deploy the full complement of 3,500 troops. The report is expected on Monday.

If given the go-ahead, the NATO force is expected to stay for 30 days to collect weapons surrendered voluntarily by rebels following a six-month conflict which they said was intended to win more rights for the country's minority ethnic Albanians.

Alexander Dick, spokesman for the 400-strong vanguard, told a news conference on Friday that the full NATO contingent would only deploy if a cease-fire was respected.

''We're not here to enforce any peace, we're not here to physically take any weapons," he said.

Sporadic cease-fire violations by both sides have been reported since a peace deal was signed by party leaders on Monday.

On Thursday, a police officer was shot through the head by a rebel sniper at a checkpoint in a suburb of Tetovo, the country's second-largest city.

Macedonia's government blamed the killing on ethnic Albanian rebels, known as the National Liberation Army, and said security forces responded to the attack. An ethnic Albanian rebel was reportedly hit.

"This shows how much an honest word given by the so-called leader of the NLA, Ali Ahmeti, is worth," government spokesman Antonio Milososki told The Associated Press. "We cannot trust them."

Earlier, the ethnic Albanian who commands the rebels' military police in the ethnic Albanian majority region near Tetovo promised his men would hand in their guns.

But he added that "we have been and still are in a position to deal with the Macedonian forces in any situation at any time."

NATO has set various conditions for deploying its forces to collect the arms, including a lasting cease-fire and an agreement by the rebels to hand in their weapons.

Weapons will be collected over a 30-day period and are to be destroyed or transported to Greece, where they will be verifiably put out of commission.

Rebels are expected to turn in about 2,000 weapons, but more than 8,000 weapons are believed to be out in the field.

A rebel commander told CNN 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 along the way.

The rebels were not involved in the talks but have signed a separate agreement with NATO to surrender their weapons.

NATO's Operation Essential Harvest is expected to include troops from 11 European nations and the United States.

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

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