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NATO begins Macedonia mission

British troops
British troops arriving in Skopje on Friday evening  

SKOPJE, Macedonia -- Troops from a NATO force aimed at collecting weapons from ethnic Albanian rebels in Macedonia have started arriving to begin the operation.

Around 70 troops from Britain, the Czech Republic and France arrived in Skopje on Friday evening with more due in the region over the weekend.

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

They are there to pave the way for another 3,000 NATO troops who are expected to be sent to Macedonia as part of an operation dubbed "Operation Essential Harvest."

A Western-brokered deal to give ethnic Albanians more rights -- and aimed at ending the conflict -- was signed between the country's Slav and ethnic Albanian politicians earlier this week.

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CNN's Walter Rodgers: Advance mission will guage the feeling on the ground
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A cease-fire was also declared between the rebels and government forces.

On Friday, NATO ambassadors in Brussels postponed a decision on whether to go ahead with plans to send the full 3,500-strong force to the region.

Reuters said the alliance's supreme commander, U.S. General Joseph Ralston, would be travelling to Skopje on Monday to assess whether the truce could be sustained.

The agency quoted state news agency MIA as saying the volatile area around the city of Tetovo area was calm on Friday after an overnight clash in which an Albanian was reported killed after the fatal shooting of a policeman.

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

But the rebels said the Macedonians started the fighting.

"Macedonian forces started to shoot at civilians near our position for no reason," he told Reuters. "We had to defend ourselves and civilians."

MIA also reported unconfirmed claims that "Albanian terrorists" were burning the houses of non-Albanians in the village of Matejce in mountains 10 kilometres (six miles) north of Skopje.

French air technicians help Czech soldiers with the disembarking of an army vehicle from a Czech plane in Skopje
French air technicians help Czech soldiers with the disembarking of an army vehicle from a Czech plane in Skopje  

A NATO official told Reuters the alliance wanted more information about the cease-fire but added that its ambassadors were still backing the mission.

He said: "It seems there has been no major breach of the cease-fire, though there has been some sporadic exchange of fire. Things are mostly holding."

"I think it (decision on full deployment) should be moving along fairly rapidly. We could be talking about a matter of days," said Major Barry Johnson, NATO spokesman in Macedonia, Reuters reported.

Brigadier Barney White-Spunner, commander of the advance team, told the agency as the British troops landed: "There's a real commitment from NATO to try and make this work and if the conditions are right we will make it work."

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 aimed at winning more rights for the country's minority ethnic Albanians.

Troops would set up to 15 weapons collection points where rebels would dump guns, bullets and mortars. The NATO troops leave the area and the weapons would be destroyed abroad.

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."

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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