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Macedonia cease-fire under pressure

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Rebels in the village of Sipkovica, west of the capital, Skopje  


SIPKOVICA, Macedonia -- Government forces and ethnic Albanian rebels have exchanged gunfire in Macedonia, as an advance force of NATO troops begins work to evaluate a cease-fire.

NATO's supreme allied commander in Europe, General Joseph Ralston, is set to travel to Macedonia on Monday to take part in a review of security in the troubled region.

A vanguard of around 400 NATO troops arrived in the country at the weekend.

If NATO decides the cease-fire is holding, a further 3,500 troops will be sent on a 30-day mission to collect arms from rebels, known as Operation Essential Harvest. A decision is expected later in the week.

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On Sunday evening, rebels and Macedonian forces exchanged fire in the village of Poroj, a police official told the Associated Press.

"Our forces came under fire so the orders to return fire were given," he said describing situation as "rather serious." There was no word on casualties.

An ethnic Albanian rebel commander speaking on condition of anonymity confirmed that "very intensive" fighting was under way, but he did not offer details.

Hours earlier, the leader of Macedonia's ethnic Albanian rebels said his fighters would hand their weapons to NATO soldiers and honour the terms of a peace deal.

Ali Ahmeti, the political leader of the National Liberation Army, told AP: "We will give up all our arms, because we will no longer have any need for them.''

The rebels began fighting for more rights for minority ethnic Albanians in Macedonia six months ago.

Ahmeti told reporters crammed into a village school that he had begun contacts with the NATO advance team.

He insisted the rebels were willing to give up the territory they had gained for the sake of ensuring the peace deal worked.

Civilians blockaded the main road to the border in the town of Stenkovac for a second day on Sunday, preventing NATO-led peacekeepers from traveling in and out of Kosovo. The support base for peacekeepers in Kosovo is located in Macedonia.

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.






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