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Blasts, weapons row in Macedonia

British troops
British troops patrol a road above the village of Zelino  

SKOPJE, Macedonia -- Explosions rocked an area near Tetovo as NATO faced a fresh dispute over the number of weapons to be collected from ethnic Albanian rebels.

The explosions destroyed a vehicle checkpoint near Macedonia's second largest city, police said. There was no word on casualties.

There was also gunfire from the nearby frontline villages of Trebos and Palatica in the early hours of Saturday.

Meanwhile, NATO troops continued to enter Macedonia in preparation for their arms-collection mission, which is expected to begin Monday.

NATO presented President Boris Trajkovski on Friday with the number of weapons to be collected. But the exact number of weapons was not announced, and continuation of discussions Saturday fueled speculation on the extent of the rebel arsenal.

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Western diplomats have indicated about 3,000 arms are targeted for collection. Macedonia's prime minister told reporters on Saturday that such a low figure could hinder the peace process.

"To talk about only 3,500 pieces of weaponry after five or six months of crisis is ridiculous. Without serious disarmament further fighting is guaranteed," Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski said. "We used to seize that quantity in a single raid."

NATO officials were briefing government officials on Saturday on the operation and said Georgievski's comments would not jeopardise its timetable.

"That has not been presented as the official response to NATO from the government," NATO spokesman Maj. Barry Johnson said. "We have every confidence this is moving forward and that weapons collection will begin on Monday as planned."

Initially, the rebel National Liberation Army (NLA) claimed it had only 2,000 weapons. The figure of 85,000 weapons was suggested by the Macedonian government, but this was discounted by Western officials.

Jane's Defence Weekly on Saturday reported intelligence sources as saying the rebels have 8,000 assault rifled, 250 heavy machine guns, 200 sniping rifles, up to 200 mortars and 50 shoulder missile launchers, in addition to more than 100 anti-tank launchers, thousands of land mines and hand grenades, and thousands of obsolete rifles, according to The Associated Press.

NATO officials have played down the dispute over figures, arguing that the point of the mission is to begin building trust.

President Trajkovski, meanwhile, told the daily newspaper Dnevnik that arms collection was important only if it meant that more than 125,000 displaced civilians could return home.

NATO's 'Operation Essential Harvest'
Numbers of troops pledged so far:
Belgium 90
Canada 200
Czech Republic 140
France 535
Germany 500
Greece 410
Iceland 1
Italy 700
Netherlands 250
Norway 40
Spain in discussion
Turkey 150
UK 1,900
Portgual has pledged 5 minedisposal experts and Hungary41 civilian ammunition disposalexperts.

The U.S. is not committing troopsbut contributing equipment, logistics and medical supportand unmanned reconnaissance aircraft.

"That will take time. But it's my top priority," Trajkovski said.

More than 400 Greek troops arrived in Macedonia on Saturday as part of the NATO force.

NATO's ruling council has authorized a total of some 4,700 troops to help disarm the rebels, including about 3,500 actively involved in the collection of arms and others in administrative and logistic roles.

NATO expects to have collected about a third of the arms by the end of next week, although NATO troops will not search for or confiscate any weapons.

NATO officials said Macedonian forces and ethnic Albanian rebels have agreed to pull back from sensitive areas ahead of the collection. Macedonian security forces said they would move to a distance of 3 1/2 miles from sites where troops will collect the arms, NATO said.

There are scheduled to be about 15 collection points around the cities of Kumanovo, Tetovo and Debar.

Also in the region, NATO-led peacekeepers detained 53 suspected ethnic Albanian rebels as they entered Kosovo from Macedonia in two separate incidents on Friday, according to U.S. forces.

In the village of Gorance, five suspected rebels shot at the peacekeepers, who returned fire, injuring one, the statement said. Peacekeepers seized arms and ammunition being carried by the suspected rebels.

In a separate action, peacekeepers detained 48 suspected rebels in the village of Zlokucane as they were entering Kosovo from Macedonia. The 48 men were unarmed but carrying communications equipment, money and NLA identification.

Kosovo is widely believed to be a main supply and transit route for Macedonia's ethnic Albanian rebels.

Also Saturday, World Bank officials offered Macedonia a fresh infusion of cash if the peace deal holds, according to the AP.

World Bank and Macedonian officials were laying the groundwork for a donor's conference called for under the peace accord, according to Christian Poortman, World Bank coordinator for Eastern Europe.

Bank officials are considering $15 millions in loans for the country's budget, and an additional $5 million in aid for new municipalities was discussed, Macedonian Finance Minister Nikola Gruevski said.

• Operation Essential Harvest
• Macedonian government
• National Liberation Army

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