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NATO begins Macedonia mission

White-Spunner (right)
NATO's Brig. Barney White-Spunner (right) at news conference with Danish Maj. Gen. Gunnar Lange  

SKOPJE, Macedonia (CNN) -- A special NATO vanguard has begun its mission in Macedonia, laying the groundwork for the possible arrival of a larger force to collect arms from rebels.

An advance team of about 400 troops is arriving in Macedonia to assess the security situation in the country, where insurgents have been fighting government forces for six months.

If NATO decides to send a full force, around 3,500 troops will spend 30 days collecting weapons due to be surrendered voluntarily by rebels.

NATO says the larger force will only be deployed if a cease-fire agreed last week holds.

In overnight violence, two rocket-propelled grenades were fired at a Macedonian police position near the country's second-largest city, Tetovo.

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Defence officials also told the Associated Press that they arrested a group of rebels crossing into the country from Albania.

Macedonian authorities shut down the main border crossing between Kosovo and Macedonia on Saturday.

A Macedonian police source told AP insurgents had been spotted near the crossing, prompting the closure.

Civilians later blockaded the main road to the border in the town of Stenkovac, stretching out concertina wire and piling sand on the highway to stop NATO-led peacekeepers from entering and leaving Kosovo.

Observers say many Macedonians blame NATO for their troubles because they say the alliance failed to stop weapons and supplies from Kosovo that are widely believed to be supporting rebel forces.

British transport planes flying at about two-hour intervals ferried the first contingent of soldiers into Macedonia to study the military situation on the ground and complete plans for the British-led Operation Essential Harvest.

The first troops arrived on Friday, and included French forces, 40 members of Britain's 16 Air Assault Brigade and 120 soldiers from the Czech Republic sent to protect the advance party.

The alliance has announced plans to dispatch the supreme allied commander in Europe, General Joseph Ralston, on Monday to take part in the security assessment.

NATO says it will decide next week whether to send in the rest of the 3,500 troops earmarked for the overall mission.

"We can only do our job with the full commitment and support of everybody in Macedonia," said Brigadier Barney White-Spunner, the 16 Air Assault Brigade's commander. "We are not here on a disarmament mission. We are not here on a peacekeeping mission."

NATO has said a lasting cease-fire must be in place before its troops can deploy to collect weapons from the ethnic Albanian rebel National Liberation Army.

The insurgents took up arms in February, saying they were fighting for greater rights for ethnic Albanians, who account for about a third of Macedonia's two million people.

• Troops prepare for Macedonia task
August 16, 2001
• NATO set for Macedonia mission
August 16, 2001
• Macedonia rebels sign arms pact
August 14, 2001
• Clashes threaten Macedonia deal
August 12, 2001
• Protests after Macedonia deaths
August 11, 2001

• Macedonian government
• UK Ministry of Defence

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