NATO collects one third of weapons
SKOPJE, Macedonia (CNN) -- The military commander of NATO's Operation Essential Harvest has reported that more than one third of ethnic Albanian rebels' weapons have been collected by his force.
Major General Gunnar Lange said he had given a letter to Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski informing him of the completion of the first phase of the weapon collection programme with more than 1,400 weapons surrendered.
The total satisfies the condition set by the parliament of the former Yugoslav republic to launch its debate on political reforms, a NATO spokesman said.
"I really hope that this will contribute to the parliament process," Lange said.
NATO had aimed to collect a third of its 3,300 weapon target by Friday when the parliamentary debate is due to begin.
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw is in Skopje to boost international pressure on the Macedonia's parliament to ratify the peace deal.
He arrived as German troops joined the task force following parliamentary approval in the Bundestag for their deployment.
Straw said before leaving Northolt Airport, London, on Thursday that he would be talking to Macedonia's President Boris Trajkovski, Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski, assembly speaker Stojan Andov and MPs about the need to ensure the peace settlement is endorsed in parliament.
"NATO's involvement with Operation Essential Harvest and the weapons collection is part of an overall political process which is designed to secure a constitutional political accommodation between the Macedonian majority and the Albanian minority," he said.
Parliament begins debating the peace accord on Friday which, if approved, will grant new rights to ethnic Albanians in return for rebel fighters handing over 3,300 of their weapons.
But many Macedonian politicians are concerned that the rebels will renege on their arms pledges -- and if the deal fails to get a two-thirds majority there could be a return to violence.
Hardliners like PM Georgievski say the rebels hold more than 60,000 arms.
Visiting Macedonia on Wednesday, NATO's Robertson said that quantities of rebels arms were being surrendered and it was now time for Macedonia's politicians to honour their side of the deal.
He told Macedonian officials: "This country has the chance to show that it is possible to deal with an internal conflict before the blood starts to pour down the streets.
"I cannot tell if this historic project is going to succeed, but I can certainly tell you that the alternative to what we are doing now will be horrifying, for all of those who live in this country, and indeed to those who live in the surrounding countries too," Robertson said.
"This process is difficult and not without risk. But the alternative is unthinkable," he added. In talks with Robertson, Trajkovski insisted the criteria for the success of the mission included whether refugees would be allowed to return and whether the Macedonian government was able to regain control of territory now held by rebels.
Robertson said the matters were more the concern of "other organisations which are a critical part of this peace process," and not of NATO alone.
However, the NATO secretary-general did leave the option open for possible future international involvement in Macedonia, if requested by the government. "I don't think the international community could stand back if the people of Macedonia cry for help," he said.
Earlier in the day, Robertson travelled to a military base in Krivolak, about 40 miles (70 km) southeast of the capital Skopje, to view weapons already collected.
British defence officials said NATO troops had gathered weapons "in the high hundreds," including surface-to-air missiles, anti-tank weapons, mortar tubes and AK-47 assault rifles.
Robertson said he expected the NATO mission to end after its alotted 30 days, or shortly afterwards.
Before he left for Macedonia, Straw admitted that British troops could stay there beyond NATO's 30-day deadline.
"At the moment, what the NATO Council has agreed is that this operation is for 30 days," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
"Nothing, particularly in the Balkans, is inevitable. If you are asking me whether that NATO decision may change, it could change.
"But it took a lot of discussion among the partners in NATO to agree the 30 days and my best bet is that that decision will stand, and that after 30 days this operation will come to an end but I can't be certain."
Mr Straw acknowledged there was still hostility in Macedonia to Operation Essential Harvest.
"It also has to be remembered that the NATO troops are only there as a result of the invitation of the government of Macedonia.
"They are not an army of occupation. They are there to assist in a peace process." CNN's Senior International Correspondent Walter Rodgers said there was "anxiety" in the NATO camp about the result of the parliamentary vote, which is expected next Tuesday.
Meanwhile, it emerged that U.S. medics who treated British soldier Ian Collins, who was fatally injured in Macedonia on Sunday, were threatened by a mob.
Sapper Collins, 22, from Sheffield, died when unidentified youths hurled a lump of concrete on to the Land Rover in which he was travelling.
New details suggested that the incident was clearly an attack on a Nato soldier, according to the Associated Press.
It quoted medics of the US Army's 407 Ground Ambulance Company describing how a hostile crowd gathered behind them as they tried to save his life.
Visiting Straw is expected to press the Macedonian government to make early arrests over the killing.
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